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Large Ethiopian Orthodox Church planned; nearby neighborhood residents speak out against proposed location

Pictured are site plans for the proposed Tsadkane Mariam Ethiopian Orthodox Church along County Road 10. (Special to The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — Tsadkane Mariam Ethiopian Orthodox Church is planning to build a new, 24,792-square foot church across from Olson Park and south of Sutherland Drive along Crailsheim Drive.

The project has drawn opposition from nearby Glenwood Heights residents who don’t agree with the proposed location — in a residential area.

Worthington’s Ethiopian Orthodox community has never had its own church. Members of the congregation used to drive to Sioux Falls, S.D. for worship services and currently rent out space within First Lutheran Church — a situation that both sides agree is working well, but doesn’t provide enough space for the growing group.

The congregation draws 50 to 100 people for Sunday worship services and has roughly 400 followers in the area. Members of the congregation have been saving to build a new church in order to accommodate its growth.

Abebe Abetew, president of the congregation, said the church will keep Ethiopian people in Worthington and attract others to the community.

“When you build the church here in Worthington, they feel like they’re back home and they feel like they are included and they are more empowered,” Abetew said. “As we establish the church, the number of people moving into Worthington will be high.”

Supporters and opponents of the project filled Worthington’s City Hall during Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting. On the agenda was only one item — a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) required for the proposed church.

A shorthanded Planning Commission ultimately chose to recommend approval of the permit 3-1 with several conditions, but the battle is far from over.

The permit now goes to the Worthington City Council for approval on Monday, and one of the conditions set out by the commission — that the church must be accessed via Crailsheim Drive instead of Sutherland Drive — could prove to be difficult, as Nobles County has said it will not allow access from the street, also known as County Road 10.

The condition was one of many requested by Glenwood Heights residents who argued the residential access road would cause traffic and safety issues. Several residents spoke out against the project during the meeting, and were primarily concerned that the church will stifle residential growth to the west of Glenwood Heights.

“We’re not against a church, but when I bought our home out there, we were under the impression it would be all residential, and now you’re changing this,” said Glenwood Heights resident Dennis Rick, who also said he was against the loss of tax dollars on the property.

Brett Wiltrout of the neighborhood homeowners’ association said the church would block future townhome expansion, all while the city is lacking housing. Kelly Meyer, a Glenwood Heights resident and former Planning Commission member, expressed doubt the church and its location would be sufficient to accommodate the congregation’s planned growth.

Property values, noise and the look of the church were among additional concerns raised Tuesday.

Several people spoke in favor of the project as well, including JBS Human Resources Director Len Bakken and members of First Lutheran Church, including Pastor Jeanette McCormick and church council president Rebecca McGaughey.

“They want to be a part of the community and work for the better of the community,” McCormick said. “They have simply outgrown their space we provided, especially on special days like baptisms or inter congregational worship services. I’ve noticed how hot it is with so many people in such a small place … truly a bigger space is what's needed for this growing congregation.”

Plans show more than 100 parking stalls for the church, which will fit around 400 people.

Commission member Ryan Weber was the lone vote against the permit. He cited concerns that the condition requiring access from Crailsheim Drive will force the site plan to be completely altered.

In recommending approval of the permit, the commission also required trees to be planted on the north, west and south sides to provide screening. The commission will again review the application when the site plan is changed.

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