The House of the Lord : Even Churches, Synagogues Have a Hard Time Affording a New Home

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

At first, Pastor Michael Taylor preached to his congregation at schools. As his flock grew to more than 200, Taylor moved into a warehouse in the east Anaheim Hills. But a city ordinance allowed him no more than 3 years to keep his Community Christian Church in an area zoned for industrial use.

That wasn’t nearly enough time for Taylor to raise the $2 million or so he needed to buy nearby expensive land for a proper church. So earlier this month, as the 3-year clock ticked down, Taylor went to the City Council and won a reprieve, of sorts--9 more years in the warehouse.

“If they factor the warehouses out, where are we going to (put) people?” Taylor asked. “It will be interesting to see in the next decades how other churches in our predicament fare.”

Taylor was lucky: At least his congregation has a home.


For hundreds of Southland congregations, church is a secular, temporary shelter in schools, business parks, health clubs and even bowling alleys. Theirs is a simple bottom-line predicament. Soaring real estate prices, lack of land and a booming population are adding up to too many people and too little space to house churches and synagogues.

Hardest hit are young, independent churches short of money and overflowing with the faithful. But even mainstream denominations such as the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches are feeling the pinch.

“It’s a serious problem when we know people are in these areas and we are unable to provide a church,” said Tom Butz, business administrator for the 250 church-strong Southern California District of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.

“It’s typical of what we run into in growth areas of Southern California,” Butz said. “We are, in effect, competing with home buyers. Basically land is priced out of our capability.”


In Orange County, where the population has nearly doubled since 1970 and the median home price of more than a quarter million dollars tops the state, many congregations are foundering on the unyielding rocks of supply and demand. For example:

- All 28 school districts in the county rent out space to churches. One church in Mission Viejo pays $8,000 a month in rent to the Saddleback Unified School District.

- A Jewish temple in Irvine meets in a bowling alley.

- A building in Newport Beach houses a Jewish synagogue on Saturdays and a Presbyterian church on Sundays.

- The Irvine Co. is said to have a waiting list of more than 100 congregations seeking land on which to build a church.

- A Fullerton church packs in five services Sunday morning and another at night to serve its 3,000 members because it cannot afford to expand.

Harsh rules of economics define the churches’ dilemma.

Three development companies own most of Orange County’s available land. These firms set aside a limited number of sites for churches as planned communities are laid out. Only the most wealthy congregations can generally afford the asking price.


Just a handful of cities have followed Anaheim’s lead in opening up lower-rent, industrial-zoned areas to churches. Cities fear the loss of revenue when tax-exempt churches move into industrial parks. Cities also worry about church parking and traffic interfering with neighboring businesses during working hours.

City and county zoning laws also require churches and synagogues to devote most of the land they buy to park the cars of the faithful. Usually, one parking space must be built for every three seats in a church. That’s an expensive proposition when property in the county’s fastest-growing areas fetches up to $1 million an acre.

Need for Rethinking

“We need to rethink the whole concept of property values and zoning laws for some of these church groups to have a chance at penetrating communities,” said Ralph M. Dornette, chief executive officer of the Church Development Fund Inc. in Fullerton.

Dornette, whose statewide, nonprofit group provides seed money for independent churches to establish themselves, questions whether new churches any longer can find the estimated $3 million he calculates is needed to put up an average church on a 5-acre site in Orange County. “It is a problem all over the country and Southern California,” he added. “Orange County just happens to be a high-priced land area. No matter what the denomination, a new church has a problem. The problem is we’re running out of room and nothing’s taking its place.”

Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. --St. Matthew, 16:18

For 10 years, the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, has looked for land in Mission Viejo. Like good business people, church officials have run the numbers through their calculators and the figures don’t add up to what the land developers want for their scarce church properties.

(The Mission Viejo Co., the Santa Margarita Co. and the Irvine Co., Orange County’s largest property owners, all designate a limited number of sites for churches as they lay out their planned communities.)


“They make spaces available but at prices we cannot afford,” said Butz of the Lutheran church.

Butz recently ran an analysis using an average annual income of $72,000 per family for a typical south county congregation and despaired. The targeted five-acre site 3 years ago cost $950,000, just within reach of the church’s finances, Butz said. Then it jumped to $1.3 million, including the developer’s discount to the church.

Butz concluded that even with 500 members giving the church donations running 25% more than the Lutheran average in other affluent areas, a new congregation could not pay for the land debt service and building costs in Rancho Santa Margarita.

“The day they opened their doors, it would almost be an impossibility for them to afford it,” Butz said. “It’s very frustrating.”

Established denominations turning to their national or international headquarters for financial aid may be disappointed, says John F. Stein, a property broker dealing exclusively in Southern California church sites.

“Many churches have to go back east to get funds,” he said. “But those folks out there have absolutely no idea what it’s like here. They can buy 10 acres and build a beautiful church for the down payment it would take here.”

The major land developers in Orange County try to accommodate church land needs. Some offer a discount of 25% or more on property they sell to churches.

The Irvine Co. gets an independent appraisal when one of its so-called “institutional land” sites becomes available, said Chick Willette, president of the Irvine Land Management Co. The company sells the property at a 25% discount, he said. That’s 25% off land priced today from $500,000 to $1 million an acre.

But it can take years before a congregation gets a shot even at that discounted land, and then the offered sites are limited to three acres, leaving little room for later expansion, some churches complain.

And groups besides other churches are competing for the sites. The Irvine Co. policy is to make the properties available for such community uses as day-care facilities, Willette said.

The number of such sites set aside by the company is not based on expected populations in each planned community, Willette said. Rather, the company gives highest priority to organizations already active in the area and to larger congregations not being served by a nearby church, he said.

‘A Lot of People Decline’

Willette denies comments by several congregations and others that the company has a church waiting list that exceeds 100. The actual figure is about half a dozen, he said.

“We obviously have a lot of people contact us,” Willette said. “But if you ask for a proposal submitting their needs, a lot of people decline to do so.”

But to be included on the formal waiting list can be a Catch-22 for many congregations. Land-hungry churches must first show they have the financial resources and a development plan for the site.

“Many (congregations) in schools and office buildings don’t have the financial wherewithal,” Willette said. “Others may be in an office park or school for 5 to 7 years before they come to us with a development plan.”

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange is one of the mainstream denominations that the Irvine Co. is working with on long-term site acquisition plans.

The Catholic church--which enjoyed quite a historical head start--has had more success than many in finding land for new parishes. The church has created eight new parishes here since 1976, when the Orange Diocese became independent from the Los Angeles Diocese, said Msgr. Michael Driscoll, vicar general for Orange County.

Still, Driscoll concedes, “There’s not that much property anymore. Orange County is a very difficult place to buy land.”

Because of the high cost of real estate here, the Orange Diocese buys the land each new parish needs, only requiring the congregation to pay for building the church, Driscoll said.

“The bishop felt it was impossible to put the burden of land cost on a new parish,” Driscoll said. “They would never get out of debt.”

Less financially secure churches and synagogues have had to cast about for novel solutions to the space problem.

‘A Critical Thing for Us’

In Anaheim, half a dozen churches took advantage of a 1986 change in the city’s zoning laws that allowed them to rent warehouse space in the Canyon Industrial Area. Churches in Placentia, Santa Ana and Irvine soon lobbied and secured similar variances in zoning laws.

Warehouses and business offices are stepping stones to the dream of buying land for a permanent church.

“This is a critical thing for us,” said Pastor Robert Fulton of the Christian Vineyard Fellowship, located across from a Mercedes-Benz dealer in the Anaheim industrial area.

The $8,300-a-month rent is steep, but his 400-member congregation prefers it over the schoolrooms where it used to meet, Fulton said.

“We were in three different schools before,” he said. “That’s the typical way to do it. You rent space in a school, then when it gets going you move to a warehouse before saving to buy land.”

In Irvine, so-called “condo churches” are an emerging trend, said Dain Anderson, senior city planner. One nine-acre parcel has four different denominations sharing two buildings and an office area, he said. The churches stagger meeting times to keep their communal parking lot from overflowing.

“We’ve got right now two churches in a business complex, one in an industrial zone and a synagogue in a bowling alley,” Anderson said. “I’ve got churches literally wandering around looking for sites.”

And so, very often the site of first choice and last resort for young congregations in Orange County remains a schoolroom.

There’s nothing new about that, said Robert D. Ours, facilities and planning administrator for the Orange County Department of Education.

Churches and synagogues have been using school facilities for at least 20 years, he remembers. It’s just that more churches are taking advantage of that option than ever before. All 28 Orange County school districts today open their doors to churches, he said.

State Law on Access

Under a state law passed in 1976, all districts have a “civic center policy” that allows churches and other civic groups access to their property. The law requires districts to charge no more than their actual cost in opening gymnasiums and classrooms, Ours said.

At Saddleback Unified School District, the going rate is $22 an hour plus a 3-hour minimum custodial charge of $18 an hour, said Monte Eagle(CQ), risk manager for the district. All four of the district’s high schools, two of the three intermediate schools and many of the 21 elementary schools transform into churches every Sunday, he said.

One Mission Viejo church with a large congregation sometimes runs a monthly district rental bill of $8,000 to house its numerous weekday night meetings and Sunday services, Eagle said.

Irvine’s largest congregation, the 10,000-member South Coast Community Church, started 9 years ago with 400 people in a schoolroom. But its explosive growth could hardly be repeated today, conceded Rob Wilson, church administrator.

“It would be very difficult unless there was a major benefactor (in the new congregation),” Wilson said. “But even more so would be the scarcity of land.”

The South Coast church quickly struck gold after it started, discovering a 10-acre site that had been put up for sale by another congregation in Bonita Canyon, near the UC Irvine campus, Wilson said.

But today, even with an additional 3.5 acres added several years ago, the church is severely overcrowded, he said. “Our parking lot is absolutely full,” Wilson said. “There’s illegal parking. We run a shuttle bus service in a four-route loop on Sundays.”

He would like to buy another 3.5-acre site adjacent to the church property from the Irvine Co., but the church management is balking at the $500,000-an-acre asking price, Wilson said.

“What is discouraging for us right now is that it is an effort to come to church, to fight the traffic and find a parking space,” Wilson said. “It is limiting our ability to grow. It turns people away.”