Land use battle continues at Planning Commission

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

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The land use issue surrounding the Grand Prince Odeum led to a nearly four-hour long Winters Planning Commission meeting last Tuesday.

The two-year-long battle between property owner Rhonda Pope Flores and the City continued on Sept. 27, with Commissioner Chris Rose recusing himself from the meeting since he lives within 500 feet of the 201 Main St. location that has ignited local controversy. Though Pope Flores continues to use the originally-constructed 1911 church building for religious services, she also holds other activities.

Leading Chair Greg Contreras started informing the public that he and other commissioners refused  and invitation sent by Flore’s Attorney Gregory Thatch to tour the building before the meeting. Winters City Attorney Ethan Walsh and Senior Planner Kirk Skierski next laid out the land use issues surrounding the property’s legal non-conforming or conditional use. In the end, it comes down to one question. Does Winters have the authority to issue a baseline determination for the property use?

Some baseline determination testimony includes long-time resident letters from adjacent property owners who testify to the 80s and 90s church activity, including two individual Sunday services of approximately 100 people and some more minor mid-week activities averaging 30 attendees.

But baseline determination means nothing to Thatch, who  called out the commissioners from the podium, saying public testimony would prove Pope Flores’ use of the building lines up with the historical use, regardless of additional non-religious events at the location.

“We are concerned with equal treatment,” Thatch said, adding no other Winters church has a baseline determination. “It is the only property treated this way in the City of Winters, and that is not a permissible thing to do.”

The public agreed. Many residents stood at the podium explaining to commissioners how the past and present use of the property align. George Elrod, a staff pastor in the building in the past, said it was used for local Winters High School events, including musicals and award ceremonies.

“So, to say that there is nothing like what is being proposed is simply not the truth,” Elrod said, adding he has never pastored a church where a city limited attendance. “Our nature is to grow.”

That is why Rev. David Clark, the senior minister for the Center for Spiritual Living, rents out the Grand Odeum on Sundays for a nominal fee to serve his congregation.

Clark added he has known Pope Flores since childhood and can attest to her reputation for remaining respectful to surrounding neighbors regarding event attendance and times. He said the over 100- year-old building is not a “pump out money place” that Pope Flores wants to exploit and encouraged commissioners to tour the facility that “it is not built for that kind of activity or volume.”

Pastor Caesar Lua of the Rock Church said he patiently waited to use the facility where he now preaches to a Spanish, English, and deaf community of believers. He said the building celebrates diversity and extends community to all who enter.

Resident Valarie Whitworth went as far as to say that the commission’s treatment of Pope Flores is systemic and biased. Based on all that Whitworth can see, specifically, as a past business owner in Winters, Pope Flores’ use of the building is no different than the other two churches in the same three-block radius, and all the rumors spread about unruly activity there are untrue.

Resident Julie Campbell and Winters Chamber Director Sue Mouslim shared similar sentiments. While Campbell noted she, too, refuses to believe stories, Mouslim mentioned how the Grand Prince Odeum serves Winters seniors and students alike with different gatherings at the location.

Pizza Factory owner Chuck Pearce stood to Pope Flores’ defense for economic and not religious reasons. He said commissioners must consider how the use of the Grand Prince Odeum supports local businesses.

“If we don’t get more volume, we will lose business, and that is sad to say,” Pearce said.

But, residents Denise Cottrell, and Ed and Carol Scianna disagree. Speaking on behalf of the disgruntled neighbors, Cottrell said while they welcome the use of the building, “the hours of operation exceed that of any church that ever existed within the three-block radius.”

“We believe the frequency of use and number of attendees and allowed to midnight is contrary to the historical activities we as neighbors have experienced,” Cottrell said via Zoom.

Cottrell challenges the city to create a baseline determination that will not allow any events to be held past certain hours. To make her point, Cottrell read from the Grand Prince Odeum website that previews the building as “a place to see a theatrical show, have a wedding, a holiday party, embrace culture and even still attend a church service.”

“I lived in my house for 40 years and there were three churches, and events weren’t held every weekend, and there were rarely events past 10 p.m.,” Cottrell said.

After contradicting hours of testimony and discussion, Vice Chair Lisa Baker said while the city has authority to rule on the issue of use, there is not enough information to decide. City Attorney Walsh agreed.

“While a baseline determination that is successful in other areas, it is clearly is not as successful in this situation,” Walsh said.

The Winters Planning Commission adjourned after motioning to continue public testimony and staff review.

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