Proposed church downtown could conflict with development, liquor licenses

An application for a conditional use permit has been submitted to the city for a proposed worship facility in the vacant space at 427 Central Avenue, at the corner of Central and 5th Street, across from Last Straw Bistro.

Because the property is in the C-4 zoning district, a worship facility is not permitted by right and needs a conditional use permit.

The application had caught the attention of a number of downtown business owners and economic development groups since under state law, churches and the sale of alcohol can be at odds.
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State law prohibits the issuance of liquor licenses to businesses within 600 feet of worship facilities.

The state allows the renewal of licenses for businesses that existed before the church opened.

City staff is working with the Montana Department of Revenue to determine if the 600 foot exclusion zone would apply along both Central and 5th Street since the entrance to the proposed church faces the corner.
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Christian Leinhauser, the downtown economic development officer for Great Falls Development Authority said during the May 27 Downtown Development Partnership meeting if the 600 feet applies both ways, it stretches from about Electric City Coffee to just past Kenny’s on Central and from just north of Fire Pizza to about the Elk’s Club on 5th Street.

“It could stifle development,” he said during the meeting.
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The DoR has indicated to city staff that the city has nearly two times the allowed number of liquor licenses, so no one in the city will be getting new licenses, but that doesn’t include licenses where alcohol is sold secondary to food, or transfers.

There could be complications if businesses expand and change their entrances. Staff is waiting on a determination for that aspect from DoR as well.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces to this,” Brad Eatherly, the city planner on the project, said during the May 27 DDP meeting.
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David Saenz of the Calvary Chapel of Cascade County said they started at a small location on 1st Avenue North and 6th Street about three years ago, but the property owner sold the building so they moved to their current location near the airport.

“We feel that our church location roots started in the downtown area and really enjoy the location and atmosphere. We feel somewhat of an attraction to the area; we would categorize it as a ‘calling,’” Saenz told The Electric.
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The church offers Sunday morning services, as well as community outreach including the Rescue Mission, jail ministry, retirement homes, mens ministry, womens ministry, childrens ministry and vacation Bible school, Saenz said.

Saenz and the church do not own the building, but plan on a long-term lease, he said.

Saenz said he’s aware of the drinking establishments in the area and has no issues with their proximity, “in fact, I kind of enjoy knowing that a bar and a church can have a healthy relationship.”
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But, despite Saenz’s acceptance of bars nearby, anything new would be prohibited by state law. City staff said that they cannot place conditions on the worship facility, such as a requirement that they allow bars to be within 600 feet, since that conflicts with state law.

There is a provision of state law that allows a city to enact an ordinance or resolution defining certain areas where alcoholic beverages may or may not be sold. In doing so, the city can supplant the provision of state law that include the 600-foot rule.

City staff is aware of that provision of law but at this time is not pursing such an ordinance. For now, staff is proceeding with the CUP as requested since the ordinance would need to be initiated on a higher level, such as by the Downtown Development Partnership or the City Commission, according to staff.

During the May 27 DDP meeting, Eatherly, the city planner on the project said staff was still reviewing the application and had not yet made a determination on whether to recommend approval or denial. There also federal laws at play regarding religion.

A number of improvements would also be required to bring the space up to code for use as a worship facility, Eatherly said.

Saenz said their plans to renovate the space are limited since it has sufficient space. The main area on the ground floor will be an open sanctuary, Saenz said, so they’ll remove the existing layout of the previous optician’s office that closed in 2017.

Saenz is presenting his project to Neighborhood Council 7 on June 8 and the Downtown Development Partnership will formally consider the proposal in late June. The group serves in an advisory capacity and does not have decision making authority on the permit request.

The project is tentatively scheduled to go to city planning board on July 14 and then the City Commission in August.