Church expansion gets nod

Published 10:57 pm Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The room was packed with congregants of First Baptist Church Mahan Street on Tuesday as they watched the Planning Commission recommend approval for the church’s new sanctuary building.

“As you can see, we have a large group out in support of our project,” said Nathan Lahy, the landscape architecture and planning department head for MSA PC, which designed the addition.

The Rev. Steven Blunt also spoke during the hearing to encourage the commissioners to vote for the project. He noted the church is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

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The 450-seat sanctuary in the new building will replace the 246-seat sanctuary in the current building. The current building will be converted to office and administrative space, while the new building will also include features such as a lobby and an area for child care during services.

The church demolished two buildings, one of them a historic structure, in May 2015 to make way for the addition. The new building will require approval from the Historic Landmarks Commission.

Commission Chairman Howard Benton commended the church for its dedication to acquiring property throughout the years as the opportunities arose, allowing it to have the footprint it now has to be able to build the addition.

The commission voted unanimously to approve the church’s request.

Everything on the agenda did not go so smoothly, however.

After much discussion, the commission voted 6-2, with Mills Staylor and Jim Vacalis opposed, to recommend approval for a modification to the master plan for River Club, a planned subdivision off Bob White Lane. The developer hoped to move 35 lots to the north side of Bob White Lane, where the rest of the development was already planned, and also change some of the lot sizes.

The request calls for the same number of residential lots — 377 — and an increase in the overall open space.

Vacalis, however, pointed out that the active open space was proposed to decrease considerably from the already-approved plan.

Four nearby residents spoke out against the project, including Evelyn Jones.

“We are very small and very, very passionate about maintaining our way of life,” she said of her neighborhood. She questioned what would happen if a crash were to occur and block the only way in and out of the neighborhood.

Other speakers against the project predicted traffic problems and warned of the impact to schools and wetlands if the neighborhood is built out.

Whitney Saunders, an attorney representing the developer, noted they can build upwards of 300 homes by right.

Ultimately, the 6-2 vote came on a motion from Commissioner Ronnie Rountree.

A third application considered during the meeting would add about 188 homes to the Hillpoint subdivision, accompanied by a redesign of Nansemond River Golf Course to accommodate the new homes. The par on the course would drop from 72 to 70 or 71 as a result of the change.

A Civil War fort located near the site would be more easily accessible by the public and could be highlighted with signage as a result of the project, said Melissa Venable of Land Planning Solutions.

That project, too, was approved by the Planning Commission.

All three projects will be considered by City Council on Oct. 19.