LA VERGNE, Tenn. — Members of a La Vergne congregation are being locked out of their own church because of a dispute with the city’s codes department.
The Word of Life Family Worship Center was ready to open its doors to its parishioners last February when construction was completed on the congregation’s new church. The Daily News Journal reports that members of the church’s primarily black congregation have been waiting for a year to worship inside because of the ongoing row with the city.
The reason the city won’t give the church the green light is because of the placement of a utility box on the church’s property.
In the meantime, some of Word of Life’s flock have left for other places to worship as the church remains closed.
“Every Sunday it’s getting harder and harder to encourage our folks,” Johnson said.
Johnson says that after a year he’s beginning to doubt whether his church will ever be approved.
Randolph Salyers, director of Codes for the city of La Vergne, declined to comment.
The church has tried to avoid a legal battle with the city.
City policy requires that the site plan be modified to show the location of the utility box. The box was placed on the property by TDS Telecommunications, a national telephone and Internet provider, after the company approached the church. The box, measuring 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide, stands behind a telephone pole just a few feet away from Old Nashville Highway.
Johnson said the church paid a company to draw up the original site plan. That plan, Johnson said, was approved by the Planning Commission in 2008. But when the plan was approved, TDS had not filed the easement for the box with the city of La Vergne.
City officials have refused to let the church open until another site plan is drawn that shows a sidewalk that goes around the utility box, Johnson said. Then in December, the pastor said, city officials informed church members that they would have to determine whether the telecommunications company or the congregation would pay to move the utility box if Old Nashville Highway is widened. Moving the box is estimated to cost between $25,000 and $50,000 — an exorbitant fee for a small congregation with dwindling members.
The law might be on the church’s side, one lawyer said. Courts tend to stay out of anything involving religious operations of a church, unless there is a compelling interest to interfere, Nashville attorney George Dean said.
Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna, said the congregation, which came to him for help, isn’t at fault and telecommunications firm should be responsible for the utility box.
“Who should be more knowledgeable (about codes),” Sparks said. “The pastor of a small church, TDS Telecommunications or the planning commission?”
The church can only hold on for so much longer, the minister said, or it will be forced to close.
Information from: The Daily News Journal, http://www.dnj.com