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City approves permit for church in downtown Great Falls; approves ordinance to bypass state law

City approves permit for church in downtown Great Falls; approves ordinance to bypass state law
City approves permit for church in downtown Great Falls; approves ordinance to bypass state law
Posted at 4:31 PM, Sep 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-17 19:53:33-04

The Calvary Chapel of Cascade County will soon conduct worship services in downtown Great Falls, after the City Commission approved a conditional use permit on Tuesday.

In addition to the approval of the permit, the city also passed an ordinance which would eliminate the Montana statute which requires 600-feet between places of worship and businesses that sell liquor.

Brett Doney of the Great Falls Development Authority called into Tuesday’s meeting to support the bill.

"It gives us the chance to have continued mixed-use downtown where we have people living, working, playing and praying,” Doney said.

Reverend David Saenz of Calvary Chapel said the goal of the church is to serve the downtown community, including the less fortunate. “If our permit is approved, we want to partner with the downtown community and become a positive resource as an outreach and service to the community,” Saenz said. “Including those in need or those who are less fortunate.”

Saenz continued: “We don’t feel that our request for a conditional use permit will jeopardize economically or negatively impact existing businesses or future development. But on the contrary will enhance the opportunity and versatility that the downtown promotes.”

The Calvary Chapel first opened in a separate building downtown in 2016 before being forced to move after the space they were leasing went up for sale. The chapel has been holding services on Flood Road. The new chapel will be at the Penington Place building at 427 Central Avenue. Saenz said they plan to remodel the street level floor and the basement and be open in six months.

(JUNE 25, 2020) Montana state law doesn’t allow for liquor licenses to be issued for businesses within 600 feet of a church, which sets up a possible conflict in downtown Great Falls after the Calvary Chapel recently filed for a conditional use permit to occupy the empty space at 427 Central Avenue.

Great Falls Planning and Community Development director Craig Raymond said his department began receiving calls from the downtown community soon after the filing. “Once word started getting out in the street that a church was wanting to locate in the downtown…we started hearing about some concerns from the community,” he said.

The proposed location at 427 Central wouldn’t affect the nearby drinking establishments that already exist, but the worry is about future development of bars and taverns downtown. Luckily, provisions in state law allow the city the option to create an ordinance that could sidestep the 600-foot rule, meaning a win-win situation may be possible.

“It was kind of putting the city commission on a collision course to make a decision: ‘What's more important to you? Bars and taverns, or a church?’ Which is kind of an awkward, challenging position to be put into,” Raymond said. “We learned that it might be possible for us to alleviate some of that inherent conflict. We're going bring it to the city commission and see if they happen to agree with us that maybe they can be located closer together.”

Raymond said his department plans to build a recommendation for both the church’s permit and a new alcohol ordinance at the same time, likely in late July. From there it goes to the City Commission, with a final decision not likely until August or September.