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Metropolis: Wednesday, September 17, 2003
‘This is not about religion... It’s about respect for a neighborhood.’
A Wide Bible Belt

Residents are fighting church expansion plans that are swallowing their neighborhood.

By BETTY BRINK

Last Sunday, Christ Chapel Bible Church members arriving late for the 8:30 a.m. service were having a hard time finding a place to park. The parking lots surrounding the 900-plus-member church in the 3600 block of Birchman Avenue were full, and the nearby streets were bumper to bumper with parked cars. This time, however, the compacts, pickups and SUVs lining the narrow residential streets didn’t belong to their fellow churchgoers who normally fill those spaces every Sabbath. The autos, sporting “we’re-taking-back-our-neighborhood” slogans painted in white shoe polish on the windows, belonged to the residents who had decided to use the streets to tell the visiting Christians they had worn out their welcome.

“This is not about religion,” said Dave Anderson, a Methodist and ordained Southern Baptist minister “in recovery,” who lives in the 3900 block of Birchman. “It’s about respect for a neighborhood of hard-working, tax-paying citizens and the arrogance of a church that’s forgotten Christ’s commandment to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Anderson, along with neighbors Diana Wiley and Andrew Swartzfager, is coordinating a grassroots effort by the residents of the historic Arlington Heights neighborhood to halt what they see as a plan by the fast-growing church to turn the area into its own private fiefdom.

Christ Chapel, residents said, has not only encroached on their streets for Sunday parking for years, it has managed to get city approval to “privatize” a block-long section of Margaret Street between Pershing and Birchman avenues. For the past couple of years, they said, the church has been buying and bulldozing houses and trees along Pershing, Birchman, and Calmont for parking lots and temporary Sunday school buildings with little regard for the citizens who live nearby — and sometimes without regard for the law.

More than a year ago, the church bought a couple of houses on Birchman across from the sanctuary, tore them down, and hauled in two temporary buildings to hold Sunday school classes. City development office supervisor Sharon Griffin said her department’s records show that the buildings were moved onto the site without the permit required by city ordinance. Permits were obtained “after the fact,” Griffin said, and no penalties were levied — a decision made by the city inspector.

But the structure that worries the residents the most is the planned 1,750-person sanctuary that will rise 60 feet high and be topped by a 40-foot steeple and cross. The Christ Chapel expansion plans, now before the city zoning commission, show the new sanctuary straddling the closed portion of Margaret Street, giving the church an almost solid four-square-block piece of property bounded by Montgomery, Pershing, Owasso, Birchman, and Calmont.

Christ Chapel, a non-denominational church that believes in the “inerrant truth of the Bible,” started 20 years ago in a small sanctuary on the corner of Owasso and Birchman that it bought from another church. It now owns 26 properties in the area — and it won’t promise the neighbors that its buying spree is over, said Swartzfager.

Many neighbors wonder why the church wants to swallow up so much of their modest neighborhood when it could build on large tracts of empty land it owns in southeast Tarrant County — and when so few members of the congregation actually live in the Arlington Heights area. The church’s minister, Ted Kitchens, and his wife, Lynn, live in Aledo, and records show they own close to $1 million worth of properties in Aledo, Arlington, and Fort Worth. Parishioners are scattered across two counties. Kitchens did not return Fort Worth Weekly’s phone calls

The church-owned tracts southeast of Fort Worth were a gift from church member Fred Disney, a commercial real estate broker and developer here for 30 years. While Disney acknowledged that few members of the congregation live in Arlington Heights, he said the church will stay because of its central location.

Swartzfager likened the church’s tactics to that of a “heartless corporation.”

One tactic the church has used, Swartzfager said, is to buy and bulldoze a house or two in the middle of the block near a home owned by an older widow or heirs. Then, with empty lots in the middle of the block devaluing the houses on either side, the church makes an offer to “take the houses off their hands before the value decreases even more,” he said.

Andrea Martinez, a widow who lived in the 3700 block of Calmont, said the tactic was used against her with tragic results. In 2001, the church bought all the houses on her block except hers, tore them down, built a parking lot next door to her house, and threw up a privacy fence along her property line, all the while putting pressure on her to sell, she said. “The preacher [Kitchens] stood on my porch and even offered me some ‘spending money’ if I would sell,” she said. But Martinez held out — until her house was broken into and burglarized four times. “It was the only house on the block,” she said. “I was a target. I didn’t want to move. My husband bought that house for me and we lived there ‘til he died.” But after so many robberies, she gave in and took the church’s offer to trade her beloved home for a house on Birchman. When she asked the preacher about the “spending money,” she said, he told her he had never made such an offer.

Swartzfager has also been offered inducements by Kitchens. He lives on Pershing next to one of the church’s parking lots and across from its youth ministry building, a large white igloo-type structure. The booming of the youth’s Christian rock band has driven him from his home on many a Sunday morn, he said. After fruitless requests to Kitchens to get the kids to turn down the volume, Swartzfager began calling the police. Then, after a number of visits from the cops who told Kitchens to tone it down, the minister offered to buy Swartzfager and a friend brunch at a place of his choice on Sunday mornings, “if I would just not call the cops again,” he said. In a January letter to Swartzfager’s attorney, outlining the church’s efforts to “buffer the sounds”, Kitchens wrote, “[W]e would still like to treat [Mr. Swartzfager] to breakfast on Sunday mornings.” Swartzfager refused, admitting that the offer was “tempting.”

Swartzfager’s conflict with the church over noise, Anderson said, is just one example of why the multicultural neighborhood with small, well-kept homes dating to the 1920s is simply the wrong place for a “mega-church” that has programs planned for every day and most nights of the week and three services on Sunday, bringing in more traffic, more noise, and — once construction of the massive new sanctuary starts — “about three to five years of construction disruption.”

“We’ve been in this neighborhood for more than 20 years,” Disney said, “and we have always been a good neighbor.” He heads the church’s building committee and denied that the church uses aggressive tactics to buy houses. Disney said that the church paid “above market value” for every house it has bought, and it only buys after being approached by the owner — including the widow on Calmont. “We have never solicited a house,” he said. Disney would not say what the church is paying for the homes.

He admitted that, as the church has grown, parking “has become a problem and we may not have recognized ... that we were imposing on our neighbors.” Last Sunday, when the neighbors had their “park-out,” he said, church members were “out in the rain” directing traffic, trying to maintain order in the neighborhood.

The church members have taken to setting out orange cones in front of houses up and down the nearby streets, Disney said, in order to block the members from parking there. That good Samaritan effort has backfired. The cones are ugly, the neighbors say, and the church members often simply move the cones so they can park — or knock them down.

The parking problem is one reason the church is buying nearby homes and leveling them, Disney said. The church needs to “get our members off the streets.”

But neighborhood residents believe the land purchases have little to do with parking and everything to do with building expansion. In a backyard meeting at Anderson’s home last week, 78 nearby residents organized for what many expect to be an uphill battle against the church’s long-term expansion plans, which must be approved by the city zoning commission. Since the meeting, the group, calling itself Side by Side, has gathered over 200 signatures on a petition opposing the church’s plans.

The citizens may have good reason to worry. The zoning request will be heard in October. Zoning board member Gary Moates’ brother-in-law is a member of Christ Chapel, and Moates has occasionally attended the church, he said. Swartzfager asked Moates to recuse himself from voting. Moates refused; City Attorney David Yett backed Moates, ruling that since he had no financial interest in the church, his vote would not constitute a conflict of interest.

There is no moral conflict either, Moates said, because his brother-in-law is not a “decision-maker” in the church. “All he does,” he said, “is put out the orange cones.”



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