Metropolis: Wednesday, October 1, 2003
Paving for Paradise

Only God can make a tree, but a church and a pharmacy can make a parking lot.


If Big Blue Taxi, Joni Mitchell’s song about paving paradise “to put up a parking lot,’’ pops into your head while driving past the intersection of Fielder Road and Pioneer Parkway, consider yourself prescient.

The 106 stately post oaks gracing the property owned by Arlington First Church of the Nazarene may fall a little short of your definition of paradise, but they are a welcome respite from the concrete, asphalt, and development surrounding them. Nonetheless, many of them seemingly are destined for the chain saw in a city that some say is already long on pavement and short on shade.

The church has voted to sell the land on which its sanctuary sits, and the buyer, CVS, the nation’s largest pharmacy retailer, is planning to add yet another link in its 4,100-store chain and, um, put up that parking lot.

The dispute over the land has caused hard feelings and prompted harsh words among some church members. But it’s also led CVS to rework its plans for the site in a way the company says will preserve more trees when building gets under way.

The controversy has claimed casualties beyond the trees. Kevin and Jennifer Spaight met at the church, then married, after Jennifer became a member 11 years ago. Kevin, a member for 27 years, sang in the choir.

After the church announced plans to sell the property, the Spaights took inventory and counted 106 trees ranging in diameter from 7 to 28 inches, with estimated ages of about 32 to 127 years. Many of the trees are older than the church’s oldest members, and a handful of the largest ones likely took root about the same time Arlington was being founded in the late 1800s.

The trees became extended members of the Spaights’ church family, providing a canopy for religious festivals and Easter egg hunts. “The idea of losing those trees, the idea of driving past that plot of land and seeing a pharmacy, just tears me up,’’ Kevin said.

Jennifer, who has been perhaps the most vocal advocate for the trees, said she feels that her outspoken opposition to her church’s plans has left her ostracized. She said she doesn’t feel that her pastor, the Rev. Wayne Hicks, took the concerns of her family and others seriously when they objected to the sale. “He said, ‘God gave us these tree to do with what we want.’”

One church member, Jennifer said, felt compelled to remind her that “Jesus was a carpenter.’’ After another member, a woman Jennifer considered a friend, tossed a soft drink on her and called her a decidedly un-Christian name, Jennifer broke ties with the church — and her husband followed suit.

“We’re going to try to find a place where both of us are comfortable,’’ Kevin said. “With the circumstance of the last few days, it’s not comfortable at all for Jennifer. We just feel we need to find a place where both are accepted. It’s a very difficult thing to do.’’

Hicks said his church has simply outgrown its sanctuary, and the trees on the lot were probably going to come down anyway. The church was already contemplating an expansion when it was approached by CVS about a possible sale. “In order to build a new sanctuary, if we were to build it on the same site, we would virtually have to cut down all the trees for our new sanctuary to fit,’’ Hicks explained. “If we stay here and build, those trees, almost all of them, would have to come down.’’

When he became pastor two years ago, services drew about 300 worshippers. Today attendance averages 400, nearing the capacity of the current building. “When you reach 80 percent of your capacity, you need to do something else,’’ he said. “Our leadership decided we needed to build so we could continue to grow.’’

The CVS offer — more than twice what the church thought the property would fetch if sold to another congregation — was unanimously approved by the church board and twice by the congregation, by overwhelming majorities, he said. Hicks said the church has salvage rights to any trees that are cut, and the leadership is trying to determine whether it’s economical to cut the felled trees into lumber to be used in building the new church at another location.

“God has opened these doors. As he opened these doors we’ve tried go through them, ‘’ he said. “We have prayed that if he didn’t want us to go through, he would close them.” Thus far, he said, that hasn’t happened.

But several organizations — the Arlington Conservation Council, the South Davis Neighbors Association, and West Citizen Action Network (WeCAN) — have made it clear to CVS which door they hoped the giant retailer would step through.

CVS subsequently altered its zoning request to the city of Arlington, submitting a plan for the site that will save more of the trees if the deal goes through, said Rob Baldwin, a land planner for the law firm working for CVS. “Trees are a very emotional issue,’’ he said. “Some people think that any new development along Pioneer is better than what’s out there today. On the other hand, there are people who would like to see all the trees protected.’’

Baldwin, who has designed sites for two dozen CVS stores in Arlington and Fort Worth, said plans for this property will preserve more shade than “any other CVS site I’ve worked on. We’re trying to respond to neighborhood concerns,” he said. “If we were in an area where people didn’t care about the trees, we wouldn’t be going to the expense of trying to save as many of them as possible.’’

John Fischer, a member of the South Davis Neighborhood Association, said “very, very few’’ trees would have survived CVS’ initial plans. And he’s still waiting to see “just how much give and take’’ exists in the company’s planning. “There are things that CVS could do that would make it very pleasing to the neighborhood,’’ he said. But he added, “we consider the [site decision] still fluid.’’

If and when CVS’ proposal firms up, the city will be asked to rezone the property so the store can be built. A vote on that change could come later this fall.

Sylvia Phillips, an Arlington real estate broker and a WeCAN member, lauded CVS for trying to “embrace the values of the community.’’

“We seldom see developers doing that any more,’’ she said, “Progress as defined by the real estate community does not always have to mean clear-cutting of the land.’’

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