By ALICIA LEONARD
In a long and sometimes extremely heated exchange between community members and the DeFuniak Springs City Council, the First Baptist Church (FBC) received approval for a zoning change needed to expand their preschool and Sunday school program. Although the Dec. 8 meeting was not a public hearing, the Council agreed to let the audience speak their mind and they did.
The meeting opened with DeFuniak Planning Director Greg Scoville going over the recommendation from the DeFuniak Planning Board from a week earlier. Scoville provided the minutes of the prior meeting and informed the Council that the planning board had approved 2-1 the request for the single-family residence located at 174 Crescent Street to be changed to a preschool within a R-1 single-family residential district. Scoville also informed the Council that his office staff and the representatives for FBC had met and agreed that pick-up and drop-off would be safer on Le Conte Street, as opposed to Crescent Street. Scoville said, “I believe that was one of the outstanding issues that needed to be addressed” before coming in front of the Council.
Clay Adkinson, representing Adkinson Law Firm as attorneys for the city, then reminded the Council that two board members from the Planning Commitiee had reclused themselves from the prior decision due to being church deacons and members of the FBC planning committee. Adkinson said, “I know we have some members of the Council that attend FBC. If we have an active deacon or someone that serves on the committee for the preschool, please identify yourselves now and recluse yourself from the meeting if you fit that criteria.” No members of the Council identified that they fit either category and Adkinson made note of it for the record. Mayor Harold Carpenter then asked the Council if they had any questions for Scoville at the time. None came forward.
Carpenter then requested if any audience members had questions for Scoville and resident Tom Hutchins came forward. Hutchins said he was a resident of Circle Drive. “I did not receive notice of the planning board hearing. I have checked with my office and I cannot find any notice and this is very important to me, as I own property across the street from the property we are discussing tonight.” Hutchins said he had been out of town the last six weeks and was not aware of the public hearing held by the planning board. Due to not being aware of the issue, Hutchins requested of the Council that he have an opportunity to discuss the issue.
Carpenter asked Scovlle if he had any information on why Hutchins had not received notification of the hearing. Scoville replied, “I checked the file and it appears that one was sent, but we have no proof that it was received, so I will check into that further.” Adkinson asked Scoville if the notice of the hearing was published in the DeFuniak Spring Herald and Scoville replied that it was published on Nov. 13.
Carpenter than asked if anyone from the FBC would like to make a comment, when no one came forward, Carpenter then asked if any other audience members would like to comment further. Hutchins re-approached the Council. Hutchins said that due to the proximity of his property and the property in question, the proposed change was very important to him. “We have worked very hard to restore our property to conform with the historical district and so did the prior owner of the property we are discussing tonight. I don’t mean to regurgitate history, but I believe you need to take into consideration what they (FBC) have and haven’t done in previous times when this board has granted them permission to destroy or acquire property for schools or nurseries. Historic houses listed on the National Registry were destroyed after this board or other members of this board granted an illegal or improper motion allowing the church to tear the house down.
“As many of you can remember, a circuit judge quashed this board’s decision. It happened the very next morning after this board’s meeting. In an act of bad faith, the FBC, at 8:30 the next morning, had a bulldozer tearing down the house in such haste they did not have the gas or water turned off in the house. The fire department stopped them so they could at least shut the gas off. Acting in bad faith, they knew an injunction was ensuing.”
Hutchins went on to say that the parking lot now occupying that space did not have proper buffer zones, “because of the improper actions of this board, they were allowed to build a parking lot, but not the proper buffer zones. To this day, that property is zoned R-1 and to this day, this board has not properly authorized that piece of property being utilized as a parking lot.”
He said he had been assured by members of FBC that another piece of property purchased around a year ago for a nursery was to be kept within the scope of the historic district’s rules. Instead, he said, raw materials and lumber had been used to build a fence and the handicap-access ramp had been placed in front of the house, rather than a back entrance. “It looks like a little school house.” Hutchins also noted that there was also a very large dumpster placed behind the home. “There is a commercial-size dumpster there that the church uses as a dump site, rather than placing the dumpster on the church property. I have asked that it be fenced or concealed without any response.”
Hutchins continued and asked if the Council had seen the back of the new property in question. James Coffield spoke and said, “I was by there today, sir.” Hutchins said, “There is not a tree or a bush in the back of the house now. It’s 60 feet of cleared lot. Surely it’s not everyone in the church, but they have some leaders that are so driven at having their way, they are trampling over our historic property. They have a history of it. They have an MO of no matter what they promise, they will break that promise. They have already cleared the back of the new property and I can only assume that it’s meant to be a future parking lot. What else can it be? How can they keep this in conforming to the historical character? When’s it going to stop? It was supposed to stop with the parking lot. It was supposed to stop after the nursery.”
Hutchins went on to say that he believes that the church is continuing to attempt to purchase more property. “I can personally attest that I have seen members of that church sitting on the front porch with Mrs. Margaret Gates, talking to her about her house and if she might sell it. How do I know that? Because when they left, I went over and asked her. It continues.”
Adkinson replied that the Council could not speculate on events that might transpire in the future and asked him to please keep his comments on the specific issue in front of the Council. Hutchins quickly responded, “In all due respect, you work for the Council. That’s your job and I respect that, but you are here to advise them, not to advise me. Please don’t advise me.” Hutchins turned to the Council and said, “Tonight you have a choice. Are you men or are you sheep? When are you going to stop being lead? When are you going to do what you’re supposed to do for the citizens of this town and protect the historic district? When is it time to say no? I don’t care if you are a member of the church or a deacon, there has to be a place when you say, ‘We’re done, no more.’ Return that house. How are you going to fix that back yard? It’s already destroyed. The wheelchair ramp that the zoning board confirmed was built and they tore it down for the hearing – that shows you what their intent is. This Council needs to consider that and the other citizens of this city.” Hutchins thanked the Council and left the podium. Carpenter responded by thanking Hutchins for his comments.
Adkinson requested if the Council agreed for Scoville to address the landscaping issue that was included in the report Scoville had prepared for the Council. Scoville responded, “When the landscaping was removed, the property had changed hands, but had not yet been confirmed or approved as a special use, so it was my decision to say technically it was still in use as a single-family home until the new use was approved. Under our code, single-family homes are exempt from the landscape and tree removal requirements.” Adkinson asked Scoville if the landscaping in the report was the landscaping the Council had just heard about and was included in the report and Scoville answered, “Yes, sir.”
The question of intent was brought back up to the Council over the cleared lot and Adkinson asked if a member from the FBC would like to respond. Carpenter concurred and made the request. FBC pastor Jerry Chumley approached the Council. Chumley said, “I’ll answer any questions you have, but I’m not going to get into a back-and-forth or a debate with their revisionist history.”
Carpenter said, “Their will be no debate tonight. There has already been a public hearing. Just make a statement and we will hear a statement from any others, as well.”
Chumley continued, “This is going to be a preschool if you give us permission. The intent is for it to be preschool and a place for our Sunday school classes to be held. With this, we will have a building for our two-, three- and four-year-olds to each have a building. We have outgrown our space for our preschool and our Sunday school class. We built the wheelchair ramp and the fence because we have had to do that in the past and required to do that on our other properties, and we thought we would have to do it again. It was told to us, by Joyner, I believe, that we had to have a certificate of appropriateness, and therefore we did that. We removed the ramp and got the appropriate certificate for the fence.” Carpenter said, “I believe the wheelchair ramp will be in the back this time.” Chumley said, ‘Wherever the city tells us and as far as the other things of the past, I’ll answer any of those, but right now I’ll address this specific topic.” Carpenter then asked if there were any more questions from the audience.
Another resident, Gloria Cokawitiz approached the Council next. Cokawitiz said, “My concern is you have not addressed what is going to happen with the dirt at the back of this residence and is it going to be a parking lot? What is the plan of the church, five years and 10 years down the road? How many more homes are you going to take off the tax roll to do the wishes of the church and not the wishes of the community? It’s the wishes of the parishioners of the church. I’m appalled that we have not addressed what the church’s plan and your plans are in the future. What happens when Mrs. Gates dies? Is the church going to go after another property? Because of your ignorance….”
Adkinson interrupted and asked Cokawitiz to please address the current issue in front of the Council and not to speculate on the plans of the church. Cokawitiz responded, “I think it’s important to know what their plan is. We go through this every two or three years. You put the cart before the horse. You buy the property and then you do the demolition before you have the permission, and I think that’s an issue. You don’t address it. You are elected for the whole community and not just the Baptist Church. Thank you.” Carpenter then asked if anyone else wanted to address the Council.
Dennis Ray approached the Council. Ray started out by asking the Council to tell Adkinson that he was not in charge of the meeting and if he had anything to ask if he would address it to the board and not to him. Carpenter responded, ‘If he has something to ask you, he will address it to you.”
Ray continued, “I think we are blessed to have some of the best churches around and they make it one of the most pleasant places to live – one where I grew up and one that I returned to. I also came back to the fact that it had saved some of its history that could be passed onto future generations. People take pride in that. I operate a small business in town and I get a lot of visitors to that business that tell me over and over again, we are one of the most unique and beautiful little towns in this area.
“As you all know, you can destroy a beautiful town one house at a time. Two things can destroy a town. One is a place that doesn’t care about preserving its heritage, or two, a natural disaster. I had numerous people call me about this and I presume they did it because I have been prone to be a preservationist and I stand up for things like that. I wonder where the attitude that they (FBC) have a right to over run any of the wishes of the community. The people that have called me – I bet 99 percent are opposed to this – are not here tonight. I’ll tell you why they told me they are not here, they say ‘We’re not going because we’ll be humiliated, because the cards are stacked already.’” This drew a sharp response from Carpenter, who pounded his gavel and stated, “I don’t appreciate that comment. The cards are not stacked.” Ray responded, “I’m merely quoting what was said to me.” Carpenter responded, “No more quoting, state facts.” Ray responded, “That is a fact, sir, what they said, that is a fact. Now, I wonder where are we going. I am not opposed to any church. I read in the paper, ‘the property became available and we need it.’ How many more houses will become available because a school is 25 feet away? A block and a half away, I am scared already that I will have one in my backyard soon. Why do they insist on expanding in a R-1 neighborhood, when they themselves could be served much better in an area where they could expand and grow? I have nothing against education or the church, goodness no, but I have to ask, where is this going? You can understand this attitude that is prevailing at this meeting when you understand that the lot was cleared and the ramp and fence went up before it ever came up to the planning board. If that’s not presumptuous, I don’t know what is.”
John Kinsey approached the Council and said, “I agree with what everyone else has said. I would hope the Council would represent the citizens and not just one entity. I’m not against school or FBC, which I grew up in. We have to respect our history. I hope and pray for FBC to prosper, but not at the cost of our historic district.”
Jennifer Wilkerson, principal of First Christian Academy, spoke next. “I live on Circle Drive,” she said. “I am also a native of this town and my family help settle this town. I am not against historical preservation. I’d like to go on record and say no matter how much historical preservation you would like, you have to meet the needs of the people. People come first. We have had requests to expand. We have a waiting-list. Many of the children we serve are not from the church, they are from the community. So I would like you to consider their needs.”
Mayor Pro-Tepore James Huffman said, “I’d like to ask you a question. How many children do you have in the program now? Wilkerson responded, “In the preschool, there is 64, and 42, I believe, are from the community and the other 24 are from our church.” Huffman then asked how many were enrolled in the grade school and Wilkerson responded, “24.” Wilkerson also added, “If you look at planning, schools are good for planning.”
Huffman then said, “I asked this question when this first came before us and I’m going to ask it again, what happens when you reach capacity?” Wilkerson responded, “As the lady asked before ‘what will you do in the future?’ I don’t think any of us can predict what will happen in the future. I think that we continue to look toward planning and preparing and following the proper steps. I can’t project that, but I see that in a long time coming.” Council member Don Harrison asked, “Do you see in the future that the church would be looking for property elsewhere?” Wilkerson responded, “Oh, definitely. I believe that is already being looked at for the future. It’s about serving people. That’s what we are here for.”
Mike Richards, a church member, spoke next. “I was born and raised here, in the oldest house in DeFuniak Springs. That house just recently sold for a (pittance), just for what the lot was worth and now it’s on the market again. The reason for that is no one is going to put the money in that house that it will take to bring it up to the historical district standards. No one can afford to do that. I doubt if Mr. Hutchins will ever get the money back out that he’s put into his house.
“Maybe we need to re-look at where the historical district lines lie. You can look back in this city’s history and the hallmark of our history is where the FBC stood. People came not only to that church to worship, but also to meet together and it was the pinnacle of our community. It may look different now, but it is doing the very same thing it was doing then, meeting the needs of this community. I’m sorry that some things have to go by the wayside, Circle Drive is certainly protected and others are. It’s just like a movies, the view you get from the screen doesn’t always show what’s going on behind the scenes. This church has been in the center of our historical district, burned and rebuilt, before many of these houses were built.”
Bruce Butts spoke next and said, “I’d like to address the plans for the church in the future. Those plans are for us to grow. We know the Lord has blessed us and we will continue to grow, serve the community and do good work. As the chairman of the committee for future land acquisitions we made need, we don’t think – with the recent economic time – that it’s in our best interest to acquire land. We haven’t seen that as evident, yet. I suspect at some time in the future, the church will move that plant to another location. But right now, we are trying to do the best we can with what’s available to us through the purchase of this building and any other buildings that may come up for sale. I won’t say we won’t buy anymore if they come up for sale. As far as other folks saying they call and object to it, I take that on its merit. If people were really opposed to it, they’d be here. There are people here for it. They may not get up and speak, but they are here.”
Mayor Carpenter then called Ray back to the podium. Carpenter said he did not read anywhere that this home was being destroyed or if Ray believed this change of usage would cause destruction of the home. Ray responded that zoning was there for a reason. “Most people do not want this or it would not be classified as such,” Ray said. More discussion ensued about recent subdivisions being built near schools.
Councilman Don Harrison said, “Mr. Mayor, I know it’s sorta awkward for me to make a motion, since I am a member of FBC, but I’m going to do it, because I’m not on the board of deacons. I did not even know this action was occurring until I saw it in the paper. I am not associated with the pre-school in any way. I support it. I think it’s a great thing and I understand the feelings of the people who support the historic district. I support the historic district, contrary to what some people may think, but I also think we have to deal with the people of our community. The historic district really makes up our community, but not nearly as much as the people, and the children are the ground work of the people, so I’ll make a motion for what I think is the best thing for our community, the people of our community and the children of our community, that we grant the special approval request to change from a single-family residential to a pre-school.”
Councilman Wayne Graham seconded the motion. Carpenter then asked if there were any more discussion before the vote. City Manager Kim Kirby requested that the pick-up and drop-off on Le Conte Street be made a part of the motion. Harrison then added that the request of the zoning board be added to the motion that no external changes be allowed to be made to the building. Huffman then asked if there were any distinct boundaries of the historic district. Scoville answered that there was a map available. Carpenter then asked again if there was any further discussion. The motion came up for a vote. The vote passed 4-1 with Huffman casting the only dissenting vote.
TOM HUTCHINS urged the DeFuniak Springs City Council to deny the church’s request to expand its preschool program into a single-family residence. He said the church was trampling over the city historical district. (Photo by Alicia Leonard)