The regional governing body of the Assemblies of God wants to build a 31,000 square foot, 300-seat “multi-purpose worship center and gathering space” on a residential-zoned lot just outside Warrenton town limits, adjacent to the major highway interchange between Walmart and Lord Fairfax Community College. The facility would be located less than 2 miles from an existing religious venue, Bridge Community Church, that is part of the same regional organization.
After a tense 90-minute meeting Sept. 2, Fauquier County Board of Zoning Appeals members decided to defer a vote on the proposal until next month. Board members expressed concerns about land-use issues related to the proposed building, like stormwater management, septic and well systems and fire suppression. Board members said that they wanted the applicant to demonstrate in more detail how those issues would be addressed, and gave the church group a month to do so.
The application is complicated by a pending amendment to the county’s zoning ordinance that, if enacted, would require new construction of large religious facilities to go through a more rigorous approval process than currently required. That zoning amendment could be passed by the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors – an entirely separate entity with different authority – as soon as Thursday, Sept. 9.
If passed, the amendment could remove the zoning board’s jurisdiction over the application and pass responsibility to planning commissioners and county supervisors, who would have much greater latitude than the zoning board to scrutinize the application. Had the zoning board voted Sept. 2 to approve the special permit needed for the project to move forward, the church organization would have avoided that possibility.
Church officials threatened at the Sept. 2 zoning board meeting to bring legal action against the county if the zoning amendment is enacted by supervisors, claiming the measure is targeted at the Assemblies of God property specifically and that the amendment’s language defines a “place of worship” too narrowly.
Still, zoning board members emphasized that they were not considering the application as it could potentially relate to the proposed text amendment; the zoning board has no control over the county’s zoning ordinances and must enforce ordinances as they are currently written.
The application came close to failing outright Sept. 2, when board members Lawrence McDade and John Meadows voted to deny the application based on several land-use concerns. The motion to the deny the application failed on a tie vote.
McDade said that there were “inadequacies in the application itself,” citing concerns about the lack of plans for drain fields, stormwater and wastewater management systems, fire suppression systems and access for fire and rescue units, especially considering the scale of the proposed building.
Meadows expressed similar concerns. While he acknowledged the zoning board approved a smaller religious facility on the same property in 2009, “The magnitude of [the current proposal] might be a little overwhelming for this site,” he said.
The matter is scheduled to come before the board again Oct. 7 after board members approved a subsequent motion to defer action until next month.
‘Potomac Ministry Center’
The 10-acre subject property, which is part of a combined 43 acres just outside Warrenton town limits owned by the regional governing body of the Assemblies of God denomination, has been the site of interest for potential religious facilities for more than a decade.
The land is located between U.S. 17 Business and the Eastern Bypass, just north of the major interchange linking James Madison Highway and the Eastern Bypass. The property is zoned residential, with a maximum of one residence per acre allowed by-right on the land.
The current application includes plans for a two-story, 31,000-square-foot building called the “Potomac Ministry Center.” The building would include a 300-seat auditorium and 154 parking spaces, a 2,100 square foot kitchen and dining area, three conference rooms, 14 offices or classrooms, a recording studio and a multi-purpose room, according to the application.
While apparently not associated with a specific local congregation, the Potomac Ministry Center would host weekly religious services, along with weddings, meetings, small religious education classes and administrative functions, according to the applicant’s statement of justification filed with the zoning board.
In 2009, the zoning board approved a special permit for an 8,200-square-foot, 300-seat religious building on the site. That building would have been a new home to the Warrenton Assembly of God church, which was then located next to Taylor Middle School, but the new building was never built. That local congregation has since ceased to exist and the 43 acres was deeded to the Potomac Ministry Network, which governs Assemblies of God congregations in parts of Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Since then, a Potomac Ministry Network congregation has built a 20,720-square-foot church called Bridge Community Church south of Warrenton on U.S. 15/17/29; that project was approved by the zoning board in 2015. The proposed site for the new Potomac Ministry Network facility, which it calls a “multi-purpose worship center and gathering space,” is less than two miles away from The Bridge.
Proposed zoning text amendment
The elephant in the room at the Sept. 2 zoning board meeting was the proposed text amendment to the county’s zoning ordinance which makes a distinction between “major” and “minor” religious facilities in the zoning code. “Major” facilities would need to go through a much more rigorous process than stipulated currently, while the approval process for “minor” facilities would remain the same.
County supervisors will consider the amendment at its Sept. 9 regular meeting; the county’s planning commission unanimously recommended last month that the amendment be adopted.
The text amendment would require a special exception – which must be approved ultimately by the board of supervisors – for “places of worship” that are more than 10,000 square feet or that seat more than 300 people. Currently, new construction of a “place of worship” requires only a special permit from the zoning appeals board, a less rigorous process, regardless of a project’s scale.
At the Sept. 2 meeting, representatives of the Potomac Ministry Network threatened “legal ramifications” if the text amendment is approved, claiming supervisors initiated the change in zoning laws specifically to target the Potomac Ministry Network and its property outside Warrenton, and that the amendment’s definition of a “place of worship” was illegally narrow.
“In my opinion, … there is a great deal of desire to keep the property green, as a ‘gateway’ to Warrenton, and [the supervisors] have manipulated the process,” claimed civil engineer Jim Carson, who is representing the applicant.
“This text amendment … is going to land Fauquier County in court. It’s illegal,” said attorney Robert Showers, who has represented an array of conservative Christian religious interests and sits on the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee. “This text amendment is targeted against one church,” he said, claiming the new zoning language would violate the U.S. Constitution.
Showers also addressed community development department staff concerns that the building could be used to support the regional governing body, not just a local congregation. (The staff report indicated that the current project may need other approvals to operate as an “office building,” since some of the administrative functions performed there would serve a broader, regional organization and not just the local “place of worship.”)
Because the county’s zoning ordinance doesn’t currently define a “place of worship,” Showers argued that the phrase must be interpreted liberally and that the facility could serve as an administrative base for the broader governing body without seeking additional approvals. “All of the uses applied for in this plan are consistent with ‘places of worship,’” he argued.
Church representatives asked if their organization would be exempt from the new zoning language – if it is adopted – because of their pending special permit application.
“You’re not grandfathered in [to the old zoning ordinance] just because you have an application in,” Deputy County Attorney M.C. Anderson told Potomac Ministry Network representatives during the meeting, confirming that the organization would need to re-submit the application as a special exception request if the amendment is enacted Sept. 9.
The process to amend the county code was initiated in June by Board of Supervisors Chairman Chris Granger (Center District). “We see facilities growing in size and we need to make certain that they are properly reviewed for impacts [to the surrounding area] they might have,” he said.
Addressing the comments made by Showers and Carson at the Sept. 2 meeting, Granger said that “their comments appear to be unfounded and misguided.” (Carson commented at another point that supervisors had “coldly dismissed” a previous Potomac Ministry Network land-use application.)
The proposed text amendment isn’t meant to discriminate against religious facilities, Granger emphasized prior to the Sept. 2 zoning board meeting; the amendment’s intention is to review an application just as a non-religious facility would be reviewed under the same circumstances. “Big facilities equal big impacts,” he said.
“The board of zoning appeals can only benchmark an application to standards [outlined in the zoning code and in the comprehensive plan]. The planning commission and the board of supervisors can look at all impacts,” said Granger.
Supervisor Rick Gerhardt (Cedar Run District), whose district includes the Potomac Ministry Network property, declined to comment in response to the church representatives’ statements.
Church organization no longer seeks to build college
A “Potomac Ministry Center” already exists, in Gainesville, where the Potomac Ministry Network central offices are housed. The organization also runs an online religious college called Ascent College from the Gainesville facility, located at 14525 John Marshall Highway.
Last year, the governing body announced plans to build an expanded “campus” at the Warrenton site, including a college for in-person learning, dormitories and regional administrative offices on the site.
That proposal, submitted to the county in April 2020 and withdrawn in July 2021, included two academic and office buildings totaling more than 62,000 square feet to serve up to 500 students on campus, along with ancillary buildings and residences to serve and house students, faculty and visiting missionaries. The application never made it to the public-hearing stage.
“We no longer intend to construct a college, and no longer intend to consolidate our subject parcel with the neighboring parcels,” the organization’s current application for a “place of worship” says.
At the Sept. 2 zoning board meeting, Carson claimed the Potomac Ministry Network abandoned its plans for a college and extensive administrative offices at the Warrenton site in part because of opposition from supervisors. The preliminary application materials for the college and office campus were “coldly dismissed,” he claimed. “The wall came down.”
Church representatives also accused community development department staff members of “misrepresenting” the current proposal, claiming the staff report unfairly indicated that uses included in the college and office campus application were also intended for the current “place of worship” proposal.
“It seems like the staff report … was addressing something that is off the table and is old,” Showers said.
The Potomac Ministry Network did not respond to questions from the Fauquier Times seeking to clarify the organization’s application, the nature of the proposed use of the newer “Potomac Ministry Center” and the organization’s other plans for its properties outside Warrenton. The current proposal would leave more than 30 acres owned by the organization undeveloped.
Reach Coy Ferrell at email@example.com