By Richard Sullins |

Sanford City Councilman Charles Taylor is continuing his effort to remove an ordinance from the 1990s that prohibits churches from locating in the nine blocks that make up downtown’s central business district.

As Tuesday’s meeting of the City Council began, Taylor, the council’s only Republican, requested the issue be added to the agenda of items to be considered that evening. After other business on the schedule was completed, Taylor made a motion to “take the item from the table and direct it to the Planning Board” for its consideration.

Taylor’s motion was seconded by new member Mark Akinosho and supported by members J.D. Williams and Byron Buckels. New member Linda Rhodes voted against the measure. Member Jimmy Haire was absent and Mayor Rebeca Wyhof Salmon’s old Ward 5 seat is unfilled.

At issue is a compromise ordinance adopted by the city in 1997 that allowed churches within the central business district to stay there, but it also stipulated that new ones would have to locate elsewhere.

Then, as now, city leaders maintained it was not meant to be discriminatory but was meant protect the interests of local merchants, many of whom had put their life savings into the dreams of owning their own business, and to recognize the needs for new churches to grow and expand.

Although the regulation is technically still on the books, city staff have chosen over the years not to enforce it due to the difficult position it puts them into. Enforcing it became problematic because the language spelling out how it was to be done was itself unspecific.

Twenty-five years after the passage of the compromise ordinance, the issue was back in the headlines this summer. Taylor requested the item be placed on the July 19 agenda and said during the public hearing that evening he had “discovered” the ordinance while looking through the city’s records for outdated regulations that might need to be considered for removal.

The ordinance regarding permissions for churches to locate downtown has been the only one that Taylor has advocated for action on.

Rumors began to filter through the community that “Sanford was attempting to kick God out of the city’s center,” and that stirred up a number of pastors and their congregations to attend the council meeting in July in defense of what they perceived as a violation of their freedoms to worship and assemble as defined by the First Amendment, as well as an insult to their Christian beliefs.

During the public hearing, a dozen people went to the podium and stood before the council to express their views. Ten were in favor of immediately repealing the regulation, but two others cautioned patience and asked that the matter be studied before acting.

With then-Mayor Chet Mann breaking a 3-3 tie, the council voted to table the issue indefinitely.

Taylor’s action Tuesday puts the issue back into play. Some believe there is far more space available for churches outside of the downtown blocks and that the central district should be focused on the merchants who make a living there. Others see it as a barrier erected for the sole purpose of keeping religion out of the heart of the city, a barrier that must be removed if Sanford is to move forward.

Taylor said at the July 19 meeting that the matter had been raised not because a new religious organization had requested approval to locate in downtown Sanford or Jonesboro, but because after seeing the ordinance was still on the books he “didn’t want Sanford to be open for business but be closed for God.”

Bob Joyce of the Downtown Sanford Inc. Board of Directors was one of two speakers recommending further study. Joyce said the Board “wants everyone to be good neighbors of each other and help downtown to prosper.”

He pointed to the revitalization that has taken place in the nine block area during the past 20 years with the near doubling of property values to almost $70 million. Only one empty retail space exists at present and retail sales have bounced back to their pre-COVID levels among the downtown shops.

Molly Stuart, an attorney with Morningstar Law Group in Raleigh, told the council in July that the DSI board could build a solid legal case on which to stand, should it choose to do so.

Although the pastors who came to speak did not bring an attorney with them, at least one claimed to have had preliminary discussions about legal options that might be open.

Pastor Dale Sauls of Life Springs Church in Sanford suggested that his and other churches “have sought preliminary legal counsel and (the existing ordinance) does appear to be discriminatory. They have indicated they would like to move forward, but we love this city. We don’t want to do that.”

What happens next

The Planning Board will take up the issue on September 20, unless the board’s agenda that night stretches on for several hours. If that were to happen, the next meeting would be on October 4.

The Planning Board’s usual practice is to consider items on the evening of one City Council meeting and return with a recommendation at the next regular meeting, either the first or third Tuesday of each month. It is conceivable that the board could both consider the matter and make a recommendation at the September 20 meeting, but it has other issues on its plate already for that evening and quick action does not seem likely.

But regardless of whether the Planning Board makes its recommendation on September 20 or October 4, there will not be any further opportunity for the public to comment on the issue. That took place at the public hearing on July 19 and now it is up to the members of the Planning Board and the City Council to consider the opinions that were given and then do what they believe to be in the best interests of the city.