Opelika City Council discusses changes to church’s exemptions from HPC regulations

Photo by Robert Noles Opelika Observer

By Michelle Key

The Opelika City Council held a lengthy work session last week before the regularly scheduled council meeting. Most of the meeting was spent discussing a request from the Historic Preservation Committee (HPC) regarding the city’s ordinance that exempts churches and other religious organizations from the regulations for the Historic District.
In working with the State of Alabama Historical Commission, it was determined by the HPC that the City of Opelika’s exemption was the only such exemption in the state. The HPC, with guidance and recommendation from the state historical commission, drafted language to remove the exemption and bring Opelika into parity with all other historic preservation guidelines in the state.
Matt Mosley spoke to the council on behalf of the HPC and asked the council to consider amending the ordinance and removing those exemptions as a way of protecting historic homes and buildings from being sold to and demolished under the exemption as it currently stands. The intent is not to place an undue burden on churches or religious organizations, but to create a level playing field and comply with state guidelines on historic preservation
This request comes after receiving complaints from citizens last year with the expansion of the First Presbyterian Church and most recently regarding the sale of the historic Renfro house located on North 10th Street to the St. Marys Catholic Church. The home was built in 1900 by Frank Monroe Renfro and there is concern about this historic home being demolished under the religous exemption.
The Historic Preservation Ordinance was adopted in the 1990’s. The commission was created as part of that ordinance.
The original ordinance did not include language to exempt religious organizations from the regulations contained within the ordinance but was added at a later date according to City Attorney Guy Gunter.
Upon request Gunter offered four possible actions that the council could take regarding this request:

  • leave the ordinance as it is now
  • remove the exemption which would mean that churches would have to go through all the same procedures as other any other landowner
  • exempt properties owned by religious organizations and used primary as a place for the conduct of the worship services which would restrict the uses to just the worship facitilites
  • exempt properties currently owned by religious organizations which would mean that organizations that purchased properties after the ordinance change would be required to follow the same regulations as any other landowners but properties already owned by a religious organization would be exempt from such regulations.
    Gunter stressed that this issue is a difficult one due to the complexity of state and federal laws that prohibit cities from putting burdens on relgious organizations.
    Council President Eddie Smith asked Gunter to draft an ordinance based on the option to exempt properties currently owned by religious organizations but would remove the exemption on future purchases. This draft will be reviewed and discussed by the council members, shared with Mosley and the HPC.
    “It is our responsibility and purpose to legislate and to legislate in the manner that we think is the most proper which in this particular instance is to keep us out of a potential legal issue,” Smith said.
    Smith stressed that the sale of the historic home to the St. Marys Catholic Church was done within the regulations and laws as they are at this time. “It would be tragedy for us to try to reverse that situation in today’s world,” Smith said.
    According to Smith, the council could possible take action on this issue as early as the next council meeting on April 16.
    “I think that this is a very passionate issue, one that is very uncomfortable. However, we have to make a decision on it. We are going to take a look at the proposed ordinance and respond,” Smith said.
    During the citizen’s communications segment of the council meeting on this subject, local business owner, Nelson Marsh addressed the council.
    “As citizens we obviously want our government to protect our historic structures, we want our government to act fairly and we want our government to encourage the continued growth of churches and religious organizations within our community,” Marsh said.
    “The problem is, these religious organizations have the same tacit needs as any other group of people. Because of this the courts have continued to allow that even if it is through special districting and not necessarily zoning there are exceptions that allows churches to do whatever they want in an area as long as it is pertinent to the needs of the city.”
    “The best course moving forward is for our city to present a strong front on the side of our citizens, on the side of our future and work with our churches to place them in appropriate central areas where they can best be served by our public services and serve our citizens.”
    Regular Council
    Mayor Gary Fuller issued a proclammation recognizing National Service Recognition Day and Parental Alienation Week & Awareness Day during last week’s city council meeting.
    Several city employees were also honored with performance and service awards. Awards included:
    Five Year Awards
    James Bush – IT Department
    Jill Jones – Legal Department
    Scott Parker – Engineering Department
    TJ White – IT Department
    Ten Year Awards
    Phillip Bell – Opelika Fire Department
    Fifteen Year Awards
    Noah Allmond – Opelika Fire Department
    Twenty Year Awards
    Terry Coxwell – Opelika Power Services
    Chuck Wallis – Opelika Police Department
    Twenty-five year awards
    Kasey Brown – Assistant Chief of Police – Opelika Police Department.
    In other business, the council:
    • approved the request for the Rehab Works Walk-Run to be held on May 18
    • approved the request by Main Street for the Taste of the Town to be held on April 23
    • approved the request from Keep Opelika Beautiful for Garden in the Park to be held May 4
    • approved the request by the March of Dimes for their annual March for Babies to be heldMay 11
    • approved the request by Resting Pulse Brewery for a street closure for their grand opening to be held April 26 and 27
    • approved the purchase of Christmas Decorations from All American Christmas Co. in the amount of $17,295 and Mosca Design, Inc. in the amount of $27,668
    • approved a resolution awarding contract to Robinson Paving Company, Inc., for a city-wide roadway improvements project
    • approved a resolution awarding contract to Robinson Paving Company, Inc., for a city-wide intersection ADA improvement project
    • approved expense reports from various departments.
    • approved a resolution to designate city personal property as surplus and authorized disposal
    • approved a resolution to purchase Christmas decorations from Downtown Decorations, Inc. not to exceed $179,145.00 as a sole-source purchase
    • approved a resolution accepting the proposal for installation services from Motorola Solutions, Inc., and approving Communications Systems and services agreement by and between Motorola Solutions, Inc. and the City Of Opelika
    • approved a resolution accepting proposal for purchase, installation and configuration of a NICE logging recorder from Motorola Solutions, Inc., and approving communications systems and services agreement by and between Motorola Solutions, Inc. and the City of Opelika, Alabama
    • approved a resolution to pruchase a 3D Forensic Laser Scanner from Faro Technologies Inc., in the amount of approximately $66,047.44
    • approved the refund requests from Patrick Hubbard and Steve Hataway for overpayment of occupational license fees
    • approved a resolution approving the Alabama Recycling Grant Agreement
    • approved a resolution authorizing the submittal of five (5) ADECA Grant Applications
    • approved the renewal of a lease agreement with the Opelika Housing Authority for the Senior Center
    • approved a resolution designating automobile allowances for senior managment employees
    • approved a license agreement with the Board of Education for the 2019 Freedom Celebration Fireworks to be held July 3
    • approved a resolution for the annual authorization to levy tax on property within the corporate limits of the City of Opelika
    • approved a resolution for a special appropriation to the Boys & Girls Clubs for the annual Mayor’s Ball
    • approved a resolution awarding a contract to East Alabama Paving Co., Inc., for a city-wide asphalt paving project – this also repeals Resolution No. 024-19
    • approved a resolution awarding contract to Ozark Striping Co., Inc., for a city-wide striping project- this resolution also repeals Resolution No. 025-19
    • approved a resolution to eliminate the position of Economic Development Work Force Coordinator and also approved a resolution to amend the organizational chart of the Community Relations Department to add a new job classification of Community Relations Coordinator
    • approved a special appropriation to Envision Opelika for the Unity Stampede Walk/Run
    • held the public hearing and then voted to suspend the normal two-readings rule and voted to amend the zoning ordinance Section 7.3 and add Section 8.27 Body Art to the existing ordinance
    • reappointed Bill Brown to the Opelika Utility Board. The new term expires May 4, 2025
    • reappointed John Denson to the Public Park & Recreation Board. The new term expires May 4, 2025
    • reappointed David McCain to the LRCOG/MPO – Citizen Advisory Committee. The new term expires April 7, 2021.
    The Opelika City Council meets on the first and third Tuesday nights of every month. Meetings are held at City Hall which is located at 204 S. 7th St. in Opelika.


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