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Woods come down so new church can go up at South Boston site

South Boston News
Clear-cutting at the lot owned by Abiding Branch Christian Ministries, located at the corner of Vaughan and Riely behind C.H. Friend Elementary. / April 14, 2014
What used to be a wooded area across from Carter Field around back of the old C.H. Friend Elementary School has been cleared to make way for South Boston’s newest church: Abiding Branch Christian Ministries, which plans to erect a brick sanctuary for a 300-person congregation at the five-acre site.

The logging work has opened a gap in the landscape at the corner of Vaughan and Riely Streets, in the midst of a residential neighborhood, causing dismay among some of the neighbors.

The church bought the property last year and under the town’s zoning ordinance, it is not required to obtain a rezoning or special use permit to go forward with its construction plans. Churches are a permitted use in South Boston residential zones.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Abiding Branch is exempt from all land use requirements. Just to complete the landscaping work, it is required to take out a number of permits and show how it plans to control erosion and stormwater runoff.

So far, none of that has happened, say town and county officials.

“There hasn’t been any permit issued by the town,” said South Boston Town Manager and zoning administrator Ted Daniel, who expressed surprise Friday upon hearing about the clear-cutting at the property.

“For a building project of that magnitude, they’d need for a zoning permit to be approved.”

Zoning permits come under the authority of the town; the Halifax County Building Office also has a hand in the approvals process. According to building official Otis Vaughan, the church must file an erosion and sediment control plan as well as show how it will limit stormwater runoff from the site. “That can only be done by an engineer,” he said.

“If anything [clearing work] is going forward, they need to come to us and to Mr. Daniel,” he said.

The pastor of the church, the Rev. Wallace Pierce of Durham, N.C., offered assurances this weekend that all appropriate steps will be taken and necessary permits obtained to carry out the project.

“We’re making sure we have everything we need as far as going forward with the building,” he said.

Abiding Branch Christian Ministries currently meets at its Crawford Road home in Halifax, but Pierce said much of the congregation lives in South Boston and the church purchased the Vaughan and Riely plot last year to establish a facility that fits its future plans.

“We want to be close in the city where we can be more accessible to the people of South Boston,” he said.

Pierce said he did not know specifically what the timetable is for obtaining the necessary permits, but he said Abiding Branch is working with two outside firms that are handling the details. The name of the firm handling the design, engineering and construction end is Your Church Buildings, in Roanoke, he said. The logging work is being done by H&M Logging in Halifax.

“The only thing we have done so far on that property has been the harvesting of trees so we’ll have additional funds to build our building,” he said.

Pierce said Abiding Branch — which counts South Boston council member Tina Wyatt Younger as a prominent member — needs a new home to boost its outreach and mission efforts. The church has developed a prison ministry, sends members into adult rest and group homes, works with displaced people to provide transitional housing, and assists at-risk teens and battered women.

“We want to do things to help makes their lives easier,” said Pierce.

Abiding Branch has an artist’s rendering of what the new church will look like, Pierce said — a brick structure, “nothing extravagant,” roomy enough for a congregation of 300 people. (Pierce said the church now has around 250 members, with half or more actively attending services). The site also contains enough area to provide parking for a membership of that size.

He said it is likely the church will be erected in several phases, although he is seeking large donations — he offered up $50,000 as an ideal figure — to speed up the construction process. Abiding Branch Ministries needs the space “for the things we want to do to support the community.

“We’re excited about that, and hopefully if everything goes well and God blesses us, we hope to be able to build in a year,” he said.

Come this morning, however, Vaughan, the county’s building official, said he intends to visit the site to determine whether the logging work has overstepped what’s allowed under land use rules.

“If it’s just [timber] cutting there, I can’t say they’re in violation,” he said. That’s because erosion and sediment control regulations allow for logging and brush-clearing as long as plant root systems are left intact. However, if the roots are disturbed — if stumps are uprooted, or grubbing work performed — that would run afoul of the requirement that builders get a permit and submit an erosion control plan beforehand.

Similarly, the builder also must satisfy new state pollution prevention laws for the control of stormwater runoff. That includes furnishing evidence that all feasible steps have been taken to control the problem.

“It’s a whole new ballgame and a whole new set of standards,” said Vaughan.

If the clearing work undertaken so far triggers an enforcement action, Vaughan said he will shut down the work until the necessary permits are obtained. Yet even if that were to happen, Abiding Branch Ministries would not be subject to a fine. Typically violators are punished by having to pay double the cost of a permit; but in Halifax County, churches are exempt from building fees.

“Double zero is really nothing,” said Vaughan.

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Seems to me that churches should have to follow the same rules as everyone elses. If I lived over there I would be mad

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