Planning Commission has split vote on Grand Prince Odeum item

The renovations on the Grand Prince Odeum building began after it was purchased in December 2020. (Express File photo)

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The Winters Planning Commission resumed its discussions from its Sept. 27 meeting regarding the Grand Prince Odeum.

At the top of the meeting, Senior City Planner Kirk Skierski clarified the objects under discussion during this meeting.

Skierski reminded the commission that, “the baseline determination was intended to confirm that city’s view of the property’s historical level of use.” One of the appellants argues that the baseline determination acts as a conditional use permit and places conditions on a vested right.

City staff recommended the commission look at the determinations separately. First, Skierski said, “the Planning Commission is deciding if the legal nonconforming use has been abandoned or not.” City municipal codes determine a legal nonconforming use to be abandoned if those uses are not performed for 12 months.

After that is decided upon, the commission could decide if the city has the authority to provide a baseline determination, and then can determine if the city should.

Following this, the two primary parties briefly summarized their respective cases.

Gregory Thatch, the attorney representing Rhonda Pope Flores, stated his client’s view that, “we do not believe the city has the ability to impose a baseline determination,” and that, “we understand the staff may believe there may be benefits to that…but it is not acceptable to our client.”

The neighbor appellent Denise Cottrell stood before the commission to speak. Cottrell began by reaffirming her support for the efforts of the property owner to reopen and revamp the Grand Prince Odeum property saying, “I’m not against the church activities that are held…and I know that local groups are utilizing the building for various events, and I celebrate that.”

“This is not the issue,” Cottrell explained, “my appeal is based on the baseline determination stated hours and capacity…I think a baseline determination is necessary as the building is offered by the owner for additional activities that are not primarily religious institutional uses.”

City Attorney Ethan Walsh clarified that, “the concept of the baseline determination is…to make a declaration as to what the legal nonconforming use is, what is the historic extent of the property usage,” explaining that, “you have a vested right to use the property in accordance with that legal nonconforming use and in accordance with the historic use of the property, so all the baseline determination does is it states where that line is.”

Walsh also stated plainly that, “there hasn’t been any testimony, from anyone…that this would in any way impair the exercise of free religion at that site.”

But Walsh clarified that “I don’t think you have to make the baseline determination,” and that there are mechanisms for making complaints on a case-by-case basis.

During the public hearing, a number of attendees, largely affiliated with congregations in Grand Prince Odeum, spoke in favor of the religious activities of the church. During this portion of the meeting, multiple attendees leveled accusations of the Grand Prince Odeum and Pope Flores of being targeted.

Reverend David Clark, a senior official in one of the churches that use the building, expressed his concern with the enforcement of the baseline, which he said was, “pulled out of the air,” and said that though he acknowledged there are “no villains,” those pushing for the baseline are doing so out of a fear of, rather than extant examples of infractions.

Following the public hearing, the commissioners and city officials addressed points raised by the public.

Skierski began by clarifying that the baseline is not an enforcement mechanism the city can use to police the church’s activities, but is instead, “a tool that the city could use if any issues come up,” and complaints brought by residents for baseline infractions would be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Walsh further clarified about Clark’s concern that “the intent of the baseline determination was just to bring some clarity to where the lines are drawn,” continuing that, “the baseline determination does not prohibit rental of the facility, it allows for that, it allows for extensive use of the property for religious purposes to the full extent of its historic capacity.”

Skierski also addressed concerns about limiting the church’s growth, stating that, “the baseline determination doesn’t limit or restrict future growth, it just identifies when a conditional use permit would be required for that future growth…so the property can still expand beyond its historic levels…but it would be through a conditional use process.”

Commissioner Judith Arce stated that though the churchgoers have attested to Pope Flores’ character and she’s provided verbal promises, the commission still has a responsibility to determine the historic use of the building.

“I appreciate the input provided by the community to help us establish the historic determination given such a unique circumstance,” Arce said, continuing, “I do support the director’s determination that the legal nonconforming use has not been abandoned, and I do believe given the unique circumstance that it is appropriate, and it is within the authority of the city to make a baseline determination.”

Commissioner Ramon Altamirano agreed with Arce’s arguments, concluding that he feels, “having a baseline is appropriate.” Chair Gregory Contreras said he agreed with Clark that there are no villains here.

He did register his disagreement to the accusation that Grand Prince Odeum has been targeted, noting that the circumstances of other churches in Winters include rules that require them to get approval from City Council for expanded hours, so the idea that Grand Prince Odeum is the only church having to comply with city rules is at odds with the facts.

Contreras summarized the commission’s response to the religious arguments brought by attendees, “I do not see it being an issue of continued religious use, this is about the auxiliary uses of the property, and whether or not those have changed or they may change.”

Commissioners voted unanimously to adopt the resolution for legal non-conforming use. However, a motion to adopt a baseline determination that included the amendments recommended by the neighbors failed in a split decision vote and no action was made. Commissioners Altamirano and Arce voted in favor of and Commissioner Jessica Smith and Contreras voted no.

Walsh said “the end result of that you made your own determination that it’s a legal nonconforming use. There is no baseline. So, in the event that there is some future controversy or complaint then we would investigate it at that time.”

Arce then made an amended motion to adopt a baseline determination that did not include the amendments recommended by the neighbors. However, this motion also failed in a split vote with Commissioners Altamirano and Arce voting in favor of, and Commissioners Smith and Contreras voting no.

Commissioner Chris Rose recused himself from the item, and Vice Chair Lisa Baker was absent.

The final result of the agenda item is the Planning Commission confirmed the legal non-conforming use and decided to not apply a baseline determination.

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