Screams from a person portraying Jesus Christ being nailed to the cross are among the noises Robert Ingalls sometimes hears while walking his dog in his East Sonora neighborhood.
Ingalls lives near Christian Heights Assembly of God Church on Joshua Way, which produces an event on Easter each year called “The Road to Calvary” that’s billed as “a powerful outdoor walking tour through 10 dramatic scenes of the last footsteps of Jesus Christ.”
“We normally hear booming noises all throughout the night for those three days as part of the presentation, as well as Jesus being nailed on the cross and screaming,” Ingalls said to the Tuolumne County Planning Commission at a public hearing Wednesday night.
Ingalls and a dozen of his neighbors urged the commission to deny the church’s proposed expansion plans that would also allow it to host up to 12 outdoor events with 1,000 or more attendees per year.
The commission voted 5-1 to send the proposal back to county planners for revisions after hearing the concerns.
Commissioner Jerry Baker was the only one who voted against sending the proposal back for changes.
“We can send people back and make stricter rules, but if there’s a zero-confidence vote that those rules are actually going to have an effect, then that’s a problem,” Baker said. “It just feels to me like this is not an appropriate place to be having, you know, 2,000-person revivals.”
Baker made a motion earlier in the hearing to deny the permit, which was supported by Commissioner Heidi Lupo, but ultimately failed by a 2-3-1 vote.
Commissioner Cole Przybyla abstained from the vote to deny the project because he felt the commission had not done enough mediation at that point.
The church is seeking to build a 17,500-square-foot addition to the existing 19,400-square-foot church building for a multipurpose room, sanctuary and classrooms, in addition to being allowed to host events.
The requested conditional use permit would also bring into compliance an existing splash pool with a waterslide and public shower facility on the church’s property, as well as build a 3,200-square-foot recreation and classroom facility on the athletic field.
Many of the opponents said they respect what the church is trying to do for the community with the events, but the noise, traffic and other disturbances have gotten too out of hand over the years.
Matt Stone, who lives next to Ingalls, said his sister was visiting him and almost called the sheriff because she heard the screaming from people practicing for the Easter event and believed someone was being assaulted in the bushes behind his house.
“You can imagine what it’s like when the production is actually going on,” he said.
Stone and several other people at the meeting also complained about the loud noise from a recent Halloween night event on the church’s athletic event that was free and open to the public.
The event was described in the church’s online calendar as “American Ninja Warrior - A Halloween Alternative,” featuring a giant obstacle course and “prizes, a bonfire, bounce houses, candy, food, and fun!”
“The impact would be so much more if a thousand people were there,” Stone said. “I just can’t get around that.”
While the terms of the permit as proposed Wednesday night would limit the church to 12 annual events with 1,000 or more attendees, there would not be a cap on the number of events if fewer people showed up.
Quincy Yaley, assistant director of the Tuolumne County Community Resources Agency, said that county staff has been working on the church’s permit application for about 10 years and determined the number based on the types of events the church has hosted since that time.
Yaley said the church started the process of applying for a permit about 10 years ago due to a code compliance case, but the events were allowed to continue since that time.
“As a policy, we let activities continue while the entitlement is being pursued,” she said. “There have been a lot of starts and stops to this project over the years ... both on behalf of the county due to staffing and other various reasons, as well as on behalf of the applicant.”
Yaley said the conditional use permit is intended to put some restrictions on the church’s activities that will solve some of the issues being experienced by the neighbors, which includes people parking their vehicles along both sides of Joshua Way during large events.
Janet Campbell, of Lambert Lake Estates, said she lives in a cul-de-sac and fears what would happen if a fire broke out while “hundreds of cars” were parked along one of her primary escape routes.
“It could be catastrophic,” she said. “You’re going to experience what these poor people up in Paradise experienced, which was a horrible tragedy.”
Campbell was referring to the Camp Fire that started in the Paradise area of Butte County last month and killed at least 85 people, destroyed more than 18,000 structures — including homes, businesses, schools and churches — and burned nearly 240 square miles.
One of the neighbors who spoke in opposition to the project was Barry Hillman, a local businessman, nonprofit director, and at-large board member for the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority.
Hillman said he’s lived in the county for about 40 years and never opposed a project, but he felt the environmental review conducted for the church’s plans were “woefully inadequate.” He handed out a six-page written testimony with his recommendations.
Ed Fernandez, who has lived in the area for more than 20 years, said the church previously held a July 4 event which had an aerial fireworks display that he believed put the surrounding neighborhoods in danger.
The church has since moved the July 4 event to Memorial Day, but the conditional use permit as proposed Wednesday would allow fireworks if approved by the Fire Prevention Division at least 14 days in advance and under the supervision of state-licensed pyrotechnic operator.
Fernandez was also quoted in an 2003 article about opposition to the church’s plans for building 17 senior condominiums on another piece of its property at the time. That proposal was rejected by both the commission and county Board of Supervisors amid strong opposition for nearby residents.
Tim Holyfield said at Wednesday’s hearing that he purchased his home near the church in June and believed the commission should protect his property rights as a taxpayer.
“I feel that this board needs to protect the taxpayers,” he said. “We pay your taxes. Churches don’t pay taxes.”
Commissioner Dick Pland, who was one of two county supervisors in 2003 to vote in favor of the church’s proposed condos, told Yaley and CRA Director David Gonzalves that he wanted county staff to address concerns raised in the latest proposal about emergency-vehicle access, noise, lighting, and fireworks.
Pland said it seemed “nuts” to be shooting off fireworks around all of the neighborhoods in the area.
Gonzalves requested that commissioners give “very specific direction” to county staff about what they wanted to see revised in the proposal, considering they’ve been working on the project for about 10 years now.
“Well, I think I’m very specific on emergency vehicle access,” Pland said. “I don’t know how much more specific I can get, David.”
The only person who spoke in support of the project was Daryl Sarina, the church’s business administrator who also worked on the proposed 2003 condos.
Sarina simply went up to the podium, said he was in favor of the project, and then sat back down. During a time for rebuttal, he didn’t address any of the specific concerns raised by the opponents.
“A lot of the things that were stated are not completely accurate but we’re just trying to be good neighbors and we’re trying to do that,” he said. “As a church, we think that’s important to our community.”
When asked for comment after the hearing, Sarina said he was happy with the commission and county staff.
“They did an excellent job,” he said.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.