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Tiny Congregation Weathering Zoning Battle

Times Staff Writer

Every Sunday for the last year, loyal church members have walked past ceramic deer, potted palms and fruit trees -- green-tagged with wholesale prices -- to seek the word of God on the grounds of a Huntington Beach landscape supplier.

It is here beneath an outdoor canvas canopy that the faithful from Praise Christian Center have assembled in coats and thick sweaters to ward off the morning chill while listening to Pastor Derek Anunciation deliver his message.

“Attendance has dropped since we began holding services outside,” said Anunciation, the 35-year-old pastor.

The church has been forced outside because of a zoning battle that has caught the attention of several national religious and conservative organizations. Praise Christian held services inside a converted warehouse at American Landscape Supply on Goldenwest Street until it was ordered from the building because of city zoning codes.

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The building needs a fire sprinkler system, fire alarm, upgraded plumbing and noise buffers, among other improvements. The city is also asking for $44,000 in fees for improvements to Goldenwest Street, which runs in front of the property.

Ron Brindle, who owns the land where Praise Christian holds services, believes the city fees are aimed at him. He said the city has been on him to sell his 20-acre parcel so a developer can build homes, similar to the $600,000 homes that ring his property. The city denies the fees are a pressure tactic.

Anunciation said he can’t afford the roadway fee.

“We’re a small congregation,” said Anunciation, who estimates about four dozen families regularly attend his services. “We can’t come up with that kind of money."The yearlong dispute between the tiny church and the beach city could become a classic standoff, said Erik Stanley, an attorney with Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based organization specializing in defending religious civil liberties. He said the city may have violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act that says local governments cannot “substantially burden” the free exercise of religion through zoning laws.

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A similar argument was used in Cypress where the city wanted to bring in a Costco discount store on land owned by the Cottonwood Christian Center. Cypress rejected the church’s proposal to build, then condemned the church’s property so it could sell the land to Costco or a similar, tax revenue-generating “big box” store. The lawsuit was settled in October with the church agreeing to sell its property and build on an adjacent parcel.

Praise Christian’s fight doesn’t involve condemnation, but Stanley said Huntington Beach’s zoning ordinance is so restrictive against churches that -- in his view -- “it’s illegal.”

Before a Planning Commission decision in November to amend the zoning ordinance, a church would not have been permitted on the land, which is zoned for industrial use. In overhauling the ordinance, the commission said the church could return to the warehouse provided it obtain a conditional-use permit. The commission also added the roadway improvement fee.

“The pastor needs to comply with the fees and permits,” said Diane Turner, a city spokeswoman. “He is seeking to alter the use of that building.”

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According to the city, improvements to Goldenwest Street cost nearly $2 million and included widening and infrastructure upgrades. The City Council approved the fees this year and Anunciation’s application for a church was the first to come under the new fee structure, city officials said.

Praise Christian’s attorney Robert H. Tyler said the fees are part of the city’s “discriminatory tactics.” He said it’s clear the city prefers the land be used for something other than a church.

“In Derek’s case, the city has been trying to run the owner off, and they’re effectively trying to squeeze Derek so the present property owner would sell to a developer to build homes,” said Tyler, who is with the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative group based in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The city denied the allegations, saying the requirements are applied to everyone seeking a change of use for a building.

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Brindle, 65, said he has had to fight the city to protect his property for more than two decades. He bought the land in 1976 when there were few other structures around. The property is a hodgepodge of various uses, including a nursery, oil derricks, warehouse and a duck pond.

He said he’s refused to sell despite generous offers by developers. “I’ve already seen conceptual plans for 63 residences for this property,” said Brindle. “They [city officials] just don’t want a church on a multimillion dollar piece of property like this one.”

Brindle met Anunciation through a twist of fate. Brindle was flipping the television channels one evening when he saw Anunciation’s cable show. At the time, Praise Center was paying $1,800 a month in rent and needed a cheaper location.

“At the end of the show, Derek said ‘If there’s a wealthy man out there who doesn’t care about money, would he step forward?’ Well, he hit the nail on the head. That’s me,” Brindle said. Church members like Rachel Blanco pray for a solution. “Here everybody knows everybody,” she said. “We’re like a family.”

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