Site Development Limitations

Here are some of the situations that create a demand for a larger church site:

a. Many communities have incorporated a very low ratio for impervious development of the church site. The term “impervious” refers to the site development that limits storm water penetration, creating more runoff from the site. Building footprint and roof, sidewalks, and paved parking (and even stone parking in some cases) are typical site development classified as impervious.

For example, the State of New Jersey is very strict in this regard as observed in my recent church projects in that state. Vineland limits impervious development to 20 percent of the site. Haddon Heights allows only 25 percent, and Hamilton Township (near Princeton and Kendall Park) allows 30 percent. Trenton has a similar requirement.

This means that only this small portion of the site can be developed with buildings, sidewalk, and parking, leaving as much as 80 percent of the site as green area. Therefore, the site would have to be much larger than one acre per 100 people. Variances are seldom approved to set this limitation aside.

b. The ratio of people per vehicle has decreased significantly, due to household size and affluence. Many families bring multiple vehicles to the church. In my investigation, the actual ratio of persons per vehicle is always lower than the
requirement in the zoning ordinance.

Most zoning ordinances now require one parking space for each 3 or 4 people seated in the main assembly area. Some outdated ordinances (such as the recently encountered ratio in Crawfordsville, Indiana) may still have a 1 to 6 ratio, reflecting earlier requirements when household size was larger and most churches were within the city where considerable street parking was available. But the church site providing no street parking must consider the demand for parking all vehicles on the site.

Every church parking ratio I have calculated in recent years indicates a ratio less than 3 people per vehicle. Some have been even less than 2 per vehicle. When driveways, access lanes, and parking spaces are calculated, it takes at
least 300 square feet per vehicle to develop parking when no landscaping is required. Now consider this. . .

c. Many communities are now requiring perimeter landscaping buffers around parking, plus internal landscaping of the parking lot. Some dictate the saving or replacement of trees on the site. Some codes require 15 percent of the interior of the parking lot to be landscaping. Others require a landscaping island (with size of the island, size of plantings, and species dictated), limiting the number of contiguous parking spaces. Polk County, Florida, and the county’s cities such as Winter Haven and Lakeland, each require 40 to 50 percent of the parking lot to be canopied with shade trees. A formula in the code lists tree species with their mature canopy size. Trees must be selected from the list and planted according to the required shade canopy at tree maturity.

These landscaping requirements increase the amount of land required. Furthermore, parking and other impervious development may have to be designed around protected tree species in some community codes.

d. Many community zoning ordinances limit the amount of building footprint. Most communities limit building height (35 feet is common). Others limit the total square feet of building on the site (even with multiple stories within the building height restrictions), with a stated ratio related to the size of the site.

e. Alternative sewage systems (when sanitary sewer is unavailable) are requiring more and more land. In some code jurisdictions (usually the health department, but sometimes the state environmental protection agency) drain field systems require equal replacement areas to be dedicated to future drain field replacement. Some codes limit the amount of effluent per day regardless of the size of the site. Under these kinds of circumstances, I strongly advise selecting a site with sanitary sewer.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act of 2000 was signed into federal law by President Bill Clinton in September of 2000. This has been proffered to give some leverage to churches when dealing with site development
limitations. (I know of one successful application of this act in New Jersey.)

We are researching the implications of this legislation. One legal warning has been received, believing that the law will be overruled as soon as someone challenges it in the Supreme Court.

Be sure you are totally familiar with the development requirements you are considering as a church site. The zoning ordinance may dictate the necessity of a larger site. It is this consultant’s practice to always investigate the site and building development codes for church use as part of the preliminary feasibility study.