City Commission to consider ordinance change for alcohol near worship facilities; permit from church for downtown location

During their Sept. 15 meeting, City Commissioners will consider a proposed ordinance change that would remove the restriction for the sale of on-premise alcohol sales within 600 feet of church.

The proposed change came about when the city received a conditional use permit application for a church in the vacant space at 427 Central Ave., on the corner of Central and 5th Street across from Last Street Bistro.

Downtown church, ordinance change for alcohol sales get initial approval

The commission will also consider that permit application during their Tuesday meeting.

Both actions require a public hearing, which includes public comment in person at the meeting at 7 p.m. in the Civic Center, or by email by noon Sept. 15 to commission@greatfallsmt.net or by phone during the meeting at 406-761-4786.

The planning board recommended approval of both in July.

The planning board requested that the ordinance change also address casinos and drafted a version that would do so, but staff is recommending the version that only addresses alcohol.

Downtown church permit, alcohol code change considered at city planning board

Initially, the downtown and development community voiced concerns about the church and its potential impact to other downtown development since state law prohibits the issuance of liquor licenses to establishments within 600 feet of churches and schools. The state allows the renewal of licenses for businesses that existed before the church opened.

But state law also allows cities to create districts where the 600 foot rule doesn’t apply, which is what staff is proposing now.

City staff considering ordinance to allow sale of alcohol within 600 feet of churches

City staff researched how other Montana communities implemented similar code change and have modeled their language after Kalispell’s, which was adopted in 2008, according to Erin Borland, city planner.

On Sept. 10, the Business Improvement District sent a letter to the City Commission stating that its board “felt the need to remind the commissioners of the purpose of the central business district. Central business districts primarily act as hubs for retail shopping, personal and professional services, such as law firms, entertainment establishments and restaurants. The zoning that exists downtown was put in place for a reason.”

The board “expressed concerns about the possibility for a church potentially jeopardizing for-profit businesses, a concern that has been expressed by several downtown business owners. They also are concerned about what this CUP may mean for future development as they wish to see the current momentum continue to progress,” the wrote in their letter. “The board understands that the city is also working on adopting an ordinance that will help to relieve some of their concerns in regard to future development in the downtown corridor. While the BID wishes to support our property owners in their efforts to fill vacant spaces, we ask that the commission be confident in the ordinance change and its ability to protect future development before making the final decision on the CUP application.”

As proposed, the ordinance would only address alcohol sales, but some members of the downtown business community asked staff to consider including gambling licenses within the code change as well.

Proposed church downtown could conflict with development, liquor licenses

Staff is recommending a code amendment that reads: “As authorized by Mont. Code Ann. §16-3-306(4) and §16-3-309(1), with respect to any type or class of liquor license, the City supplants the provisions of Mont. Code Ann. §16-3-306(1), and eliminates the requirement of a 600 foot distance between a licensed establishment and a church,
synagogue, or other place of worship (identified above in Exhibit 20-1 as Worship Facility). The elimination of this distance requirement is only applicable if the licensed establishment or Worship Facility is or will be located within a zoning district where both uses are permitted or conditionally permitted. The statutory requirements remaining are not supplanted.”

The board also unanimously voted to recommend approval of the conditional use permit from Calvary Chapel of Cascade County.

Multiple downtown business owners and downtown group said they support the church’s permit so long as the ordinance change is approved that allows them continue with future development. They are not in support of the church without the code change.

Jolene Schalper of the Great Falls Development Authority thanked city staff for addressing the development community’s concerns during the July planning board meeting.

“The ordinance will allow the city flexibility as neighborhoods change and evolve,” Schalper said.

She said private property rights should also be protected and those who have invested in their properties should be able to continue to do so regardless of whether a church wants to locate downtown.

There were some questions about parking and David Saenz, the applicant for the church, said he had 25-50 congregants and he was encouraging people to park in the nearby municipal parking garage.