God Dammed

Like South Beach has hotels, Opa-locka has churches. In its 70-year history, the four-square-mile city has become home to 30 different sanctuaries. The religious proliferation is most visible on the southeast side of town, where cross-topped towers are easily discernible above single-story homes and warehouses. A spiritual hub of sorts, the intersection at Johnson Street and Lincoln Avenue boasts five churches within a block of its four corners.

But Opa-locka's blessed welcome mat is no longer out. This past month the Jehovah's Witnesses of Opa-locka, a congregation of roughly 100, were denied a zoning change that would have allowed construction of a 3500- to 4000-square-foot Kingdom Hall at the corner of Northwest 37th Avenue and Sharar Avenue, in a residential neighborhood.

"We have a moratorium on churches," says City Manager Ernie Neal, "and that area is not zoned for a church at this time. They don't own the land, so nothing has been denied," he adds.

Gregory Olds, a spokesman for the Jehovah's Witnesses, rejects that argument. "We have a contract to buy the property and thus we have a right to ask the city commission to vote on our request," he retorts. (The group has made a down payment and signed a contract contingent upon the city's granting the requested zoning change.)

All requests for permission to build in Opa-locka are first reviewed by a five-member planning council composed of residents. Once the council makes its recommendation, the city manager adds his opinion. Then he can include the application on the city commission's next agenda with the opinions attached, or he can exclude it altogether, which is tantamount to killing it outright. If the manager excludes a request, the applicant may ask for a public hearing during a commission meeting.

Upon first review, the planning council denied the Jehovah's Witnesses' request. At a subsequent public hearing, commissioners asked the city manager to revisit the matter. Based upon the planning council's recommendation and his own analysis, Ernie Neal killed the application.

The move infuriated Gregory Olds. "Clearly there is some decision that has been made by someone, because we have not been given a vote," says Olds, adding that his group's request has now been on the commission agenda three times without a vote.

Not every municipality employs the same zoning hierarchy as Opa-locka. In Homestead, for instance, the zoning board's recommendation is always forwarded to the city council, whose decisions are final. "Our system is a better system because it's not left up to one person," says Mike Causley, director of Homestead's Department of Building, Zoning, Code Enforcement, and Licensing. "What if you make that one person angry? They might deny your request."

Opa-locka Mayor Robert Ingram stands behind his city manager's decision, though he says there's no moratorium on new churches. "I know that if you walked into Opa-locka and asked 40 people, the majority would say they want a moratorium," the mayor says. "But what if there were one? We probably have more churches than any other community in Dade County A which means Opa-locka was more than benevolent about allowing churches to come into this city."

Ingram says that the problem with a plethora of churches is that churches don't pay city property taxes and don't provide jobs. "We are going to be looking at any church's request, because we have a comprehensive land plan that guides development," the mayor asserts. "Certainly we are going to ask anyone that doesn't live in our community about what benefits they are bringing to the people who have lived and survived and thrived and have gone through all kinds of things to keep our city alive. Some folks just come in, and they want to throw their line in the water to fish and they've never done anything in the community. And that won't fly."

In unincorporated Dade, the final word on zoning applications is given by either Dade County commissioners or a zoning appeals board. Greg Adkins, supervisor of Metro-Dade's Zoning Evaluation/Plan Review Section, says churches exact unusual demands on a neighborhood. "You just don't put a church anywhere A you wouldn't put a ten-acre church in a residential area," Adkins explains. "Churches tend to be bad neighbors. There is lack of parking, late-night operations. Like any other use, you have to be careful where you put them."

County officials increase scrutiny of zoning-change applications whenever a road or neighborhood seems saturated by any one kind of use, says Tom Spehar, a principal planner in Dade's Department of Planning, Development, and Regulation. The question, Spehar elaborates, is whether the infrastructure can handle the load. About fifteen years ago, he recalls, Miller Drive between 117th and 127th Avenues reached the saturation point. Land there was cheap and large parcels were up for grabs, an attractive lure for churches, which are required to build on a minimum of 2.5 acres. "Sometimes there are gas stations on every corner. Now there are churches on every corner," says Spehar. "But we base our decision solely on the merits of the application. Looking at whether the application is for a church or low-income housing -- or a church that would service low-income housing -- would be biased."

Though such a bias is unconstitutional when it fosters discrimination toward one group, Opa-locka is probably within its rights to exercise its municipal muscle, according to Andy Kayton, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. "Barring a church entirely from city limits would be very controversial, but I don't think a church has an absolute right to construct a building where they see fit," Kayton ventures. "A city has the right to have reasonable zoning ordinances." But there is no simple answer, he cautions. "There is some balance that has to be drawn between the legitimate zoning rights of a city and the free-exercise rights of a church and its members."

Ernie Neal says there are areas of Opa-locka, such as the industrial section on the southeast side, that are better able to handle more churches and their attendant increases in traffic and in demands on electricity and other utilities. "But the fact is we have too many churches," Neal stresses. "And I have to look at them a little differently. I have to make sure the property and the neighborhood can handle it."

And Neal is quick to point out that Opa-locka has not excluded churches entirely. Peaceful Missionary Baptist Church, the only other religious organization to have requested a zoning change in the past year, was granted permission to build at 2230 Ali-baba Ave., in an area that had previously been zoned industrial.

None of which placates Gregory Olds in the least. "How fair is it to burden one religion when other religions in the community are not so burdened?" Olds asks. "We have taxpaying residents who have the right to practice their religion in Opa-locka, and we can't do that because we don't have a house of worship. [The nearest Kingdom Hall is in Carol City, four miles away.] Part of the way Jehovah's Witnesses practice is by inviting other people to the Kingdom Hall to study the Bible. Imagine this scenario: You and I are residents of Opa-locka and I come to you and invite you to our house of worship, and we have to go somewhere else in Dade County. That is clearly a restriction, a hindrance, a burden on the free expression of religion.

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Oscar Musibay