Opelika City Council reexamining religious organizations’ exemption in historical preservation ordinances

Opelika City Council reexamining religious organizations’ exemption in historical preservation ordin

OPELIKA, AL (WTVM) - A decades-old Opelika city ordinance exempts religious organizations from having to follow historic preservation laws.

Kitty Greene has lived in her historic home in Opelika for 32 years.

Greene loves these homes in the historic district and is worried about the Opelika city ordinance.

“I think our history can never be replaced," Greene said. "One of the things that makes Opelika really unique is that it does have three beautiful historic districts.”

This exemption went into effect nearly 20 years ago when a local church and the historical preservation commission got into a lawsuit. This was because the church bought several historic homes and wanted to tear them down to expand their church facilities.

This 20-year-old ordinance is back in the spotlight after St. Mary’s Catholic Church has purchased some historic properties to keep up with their growing congregation.

The Opelika City Council President, Eddie Smith, said the church wants to relocate a historic house, but if they can’t get this done, the church might demolish it.

“Under the current city ordinance, they have the right to do whatever they want to do with the house,” Smith said.

While some think the city council should get rid of the exemption, Matt Mosley , the Opelika City Planning Director said he doesn’t think the churches have a malicious intent.

“All of our churches want to be good neighbors and good land owners in the district,” Mosley said.

To complicate matters further, there is also an Alabama state law that says the government can’t place any hardship on a religious organization that would interfere with the ability to deliver its ministry.

This opens up the possibility of a lawsuit if the exemption ordinance is changed, but the city council president said no churches have threatened a lawsuit so far.

Greene said she just wants to find a compromise.

“St. Mary’s has always been a good steward of the other property on that block,” she said. “I’m really hoping they’re willing to work with the community to find creative ways to get what they want.”

News Leader 9 reached out to St. Mary’s Catholic Church for comment but didn’t hear back. The city council is expected to bring this ordinance up at next week’s meeting and vote on the issue in two weeks.

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