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Westminster likely to pass measure to increase parking; Downtown congregations could apply to build lots in residential areas


Westminster wants to accommodate its historic downtown churches, where blossoming congregations have created a dearth of parking.

To help them stay in town, Westminster Common Council is expected to pass a zoning change tonight that would allow churches and similar institutions to build parking lots in residential neighborhoods. The city has received no calls or letters opposing the change, said Thomas B. Beyard, Westminster's director of planning and public works.

A church can have parking on its site, but no one is allowed to build parking lots in residential zones, he said, "so we had to find a way to allow this." The proposal would allow churches and similar institutions to build lots in a residential neighborhood -- a process that would require a public hearing and approval by the city Board of Zoning Appeals.

"Other churches have considered leaving downtown and decided not to," said Beyard. Instead of leaving, "many of the churches are involved in extensive expansion programs."

The matter reached the city's attention when Westminster Church of the Brethren asked whether it could build a parking lot on a property it had purchased on Chase Street -- near, but not connected to, the church site. City officials soon learned that Grace Lutheran Church, at 21 Carroll St., had similar plans for a property across the street.

D. Miller Davis, representing Church of the Brethren at Bond Street and Park Place, said average attendance has grown -- from 200 to 250 -- and parking has become difficult.

The Rev. David Helfrich of Grace Lutheran said he hopes attendance will grow to 1,000. On a recent Sunday, he said, the church drew 280 people -- but could provide only 125 parking spaces. The church had been looking at land outside city limits, but "about a year ago, we decided we wanted to stay."

The Rev. David A. Highfield, pastor of Westminster United Methodist Church on East Main Street, said he hopes the measure will pass. "Our congregation several years ago recommitted ourselves to staying downtown," he said, but its second concern -- after aging buildings -- was parking.

"That's one of the liabilities of being a downtown church," he said. The church manages Sundays, when local businesses allow the use of their lots, but parking can be difficult during the week when the church is busy with meetings and community services, such as Scouts and Narcotics Anonymous.

"The building is always full," he said, noting that it is the only church on Main Street.

"But we're also accessible, convenient, and there's less hassle when we have bad weather," Highfield said. "We're glad to be downtown. There are a lot of advantages -- but the big disadvantage is parking."

Near Church of the Brethren, the 130-year-old St. Paul's United Church of Christ at 17 Bond St. has been buying adjacent property to use for parking for about two years, said the Rev. Leo Maley. Parishioners park down the hill in the city lots and walk to the church.

"Parking is a big problem for us," he said, and probably cuts into attendance, which averages 180. The church hasn't done anything with the land, he said. "It's for parking more than anything -- and that's true of any downtown church, anywhere."

The city's plans to create parking space might help, Beyard said. A planned city garage at Liberty and Green with 210 spaces should serve churches in that area, especially Church of the Brethren and St. Paul's. But no date has been set for construction.

The city's long-range plans include building a parking deck with 170 to 200 spaces above the metered Longwell Lot, between Longwell Avenue and Locust Lane and behind East Main Street, Beyard said. The cost of designing the deck is included in the city's proposed budget for 2000-2001.

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