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Planning board votes no on church permit

WORTHINGTON -- The Worthington Planning Commission will recommend the Worthington City Council not grant a permit to a church group to meet in a building located in the downtown business district. The building formerly housed BenLee's Cafe, which...

WORTHINGTON - The Worthington Planning Commission will recommend the Worthington City Council not grant a permit to a church group to meet in a building located in the downtown business district.
The building formerly housed BenLee’s Cafe, which closed in May, and is owned by a religious group, Journey of Worthington. The group has owned the property since it was bequeathed to them in 2013, and it cited irreconcilable differences for ending a lease agreement with the coffee shop.
The building is located along 10th Street in an area designated as a Retail Shopping Overlay District. Hence, it must have a retail or food business operating on its property.
Commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday night that the group should not be granted an interim use permit by the city. The permit would designate the building as having a primarily religious function for six months.
Since the city has received the group’s application for the permit, officials will allow the church to meet on the property until the issue is resolved during Monday’s City Council meeting.
During the period covered by the desired interim permit, the church would open a coffeehouse or restaurant on that property, said Todd Alhlquist, who is on Journey’s board of directors. It hopes to continue to meet in the building on Sundays and Wednesdays when most of the downtown businesses are closed.
The group has received inquiries to host class reunions and meetings regarding King Turkey Day and has bought supplies intended for opening a food eatery, he continued. In addition, Ahlquist said, Journey knows of three people who would be interested in working in the establishment who are certified as food managers in the state.
“It would allow us time to invest money … and groundwork to establish a coffee shop that would benefit the community,” he said. “We can rush this process … but we don’t think that’s wise.”
Many of the commissioners, though, were skeptical of the group’s timeframe, explaining that the church’s leadership should have had some plan before the contract with the coffee shop ended. 
Alhlquist explained that the church had given the coffee shop owner notice of a lease termination on Feb.1, and gave him a chance to extend the lease for a few more months. By April, the church hadn’t been asked to extend the lease, and church leadership was informed he would move out of the property by May 2. 
Afterward, the church assembled a task force to evaluate the best business opportunities for the property and decided to open a restaurant or a coffee shop. 
The church originally applied for a special use permit that would designate the property as a religious institution. However, it withdrew that application. 
“There are extremely limited places in the city where a church is a permitted use,” Alhlquist said. 
A downtown business owner said the group needs six months to plan and open a restaurant because the building is fully functional. It was unfair of the church to expect the coffee shop to relocate in a few months, it was added, when the church is requesting six. 
Another business owner said the church occasionally hosted weddings and graduation parties during district business hours, which was not permitted by zoning ordinances in the area. Attendees of the events would park their cars in front of stores that were open. 
“Some of those things have been broken,” she said. “We see it - we’re there. … It’s something to consider moving forward.” 
The extended timeline may hurt businesses in the district since summer their busiest time of year, she added. 
Mayor Mike Kuhle cautioned the commissioners in setting a precedent, adding that the group has not “marketed the area seriously.”
“I’m deeply concerned in this delaying,” he said. “I think the timeline could be shortened up.” 
Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Abraham Algadi appeared before the commissioners and told them to consider the issue at hand. 
“It’s not permanent obviously,” he said, adding that interested businesses have contacted the WREDC to be established in the building. City action on the permit in question would not affect the eligibility for those businesses to rent out the property. 
Members of the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors met May 24 and discussed the issue. 
The directors wrote in a letter to the planning commission that the property is located in the Retail Shopping Overlay District. According to city code, that area is designated to “preserve the concentration of retail shopping activities at ground level.”
“It is the position of the Chamber that this use of property conflicts with the intent of the City Code and may have a negative effect on other businesses in the… (d)istrict,” they said. 
In another matter, the commissioners also unanimously approved a petition for the annexation of approximately 155 acres of land into the city. The former Vogt property, now owned by the Independent School District 518, is located west of Minnesota West Community and Technical College. 
The commission was able to annex the property without holding public hearings due to a 1972 Orderly Annexation Agreement. It states that the city is able to annex areas located on the outskirts of the city by passing a resolution, instead of by ordinance. 
An ordinance requires officials to have three public hearings before the property in question could be annexed into the city.

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