Churches rally for right to build in Southern California's wine country

TEMECULA, Calif. — Jesus may have turned water into wine in the Gospels, but unless existing zoning laws are changed, churches would continue to be banned in Temecula Wine Country.

Churches have reason to hope, however, after the Riverside County Planning Commission agreed to explore lifting the ban on Aug. 22. That's when it voted to accept $100,000 from Calvary Chapel Bible Fellowship to re-examine the environmental impacts of having churches and schools in the Temecula Valley Wine Country.

The church, the only one located in the winery-designated area east of the city, is seeking to expand its facilities and open a school after acquiring a 22-acre parcel adjacent to its current 7-acre site. Included in the church plans are designs to dedicate 75 percent of the land to grape vineyards.

The commission approval for the study came after a heated, eight-hour hearing that pitted churches against the valley's growers. Citing urban sprawl that has encroached upon other wine enclaves, the region's wine growers and vintners say they are trying to protect their agricultural farmland from other uses that could threaten their existence. They have rallied to uphold the 1999 ban on churches, which was implemented after Calvary Chapel was granted permits to operate in a former dilapidated barn along Rancho California Road.

The original church permit was awarded in the late '90s, prompting objections from owners of several local vineyards. Although grandfathered into the wine country plan, "The Barn," as the church is called, discovered that the zoning ordinance prohibited it from expanding.

Local church leaders said they believe the zoning ban is motivated by religious discrimination. Robert Tyler, chief counsel for Advocates for Faith and Freedom, who is representing the church, said the church's pastor Clark Van Wick, met with a few vintners in an attempt to explain their vision for the parcel but was told, "We don't want your kind out here."  

Tyler said he believes the growers assume that churches will try to interfere with their alcohol sales.

"We've been questioned about the church's doctrine when it comes to drinking alcohol," the attorney said. "My response is how in the world can a church's doctrine in relation to alcohol have any bearing on whether to grant land use permits, particularly when Calvary has agreed to waive any right to objection—if it had it—to someone obtaining an alcohol license.

"We see this stuff all the time. What really happens is people use all sorts of environmental-type concerns, but those are really just a pretext to the fact that they don't want a Christian organization or a Christian church nearby."

Tyler said that more than 3,200 letters of support for churches were submitted to the county in advance of the hearing.

"Although religious liberty is often exercised in the form of free speech, as in the incident surrounding Chick-fil-A, it is more often exercised in the form of believers assembling together for the common purpose of worshipping God, holding church services and educating the youth," he said.


Incompatible use
Ray Falkner, who with his wife Loretta launched Falkner Winery in 2000, said he has no objection to the church operating on its existing land but does have concerns with the church's expansion plans. The parcel that Calvary Church wants to develop is sandwiched between the existing church and Falkner's hillside winery.

The opposition to the congregation's expansion, and the broader attempts to ease zoning for churches has nothing to do with religious discrimination, Falkner said, adding that he is a practicing Christian. He said the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association is merely trying to protect a "whole economic district, agricultural land that was established by the county for the sole purpose to grow grapes and produce wine."

"Once the county starts taking steps to say, 'Oh, well let's start making some exceptions to that, let's bend the rules a little bit,' the end result is that you open the door for a large number of non-agriculturally oriented business to take the scarce land that we have. It reduces the viability of, I think, the entire wine country that exists."

Other vintners expressed concerns about being able to use pesticides with a school located inside the agricultural belt.


Expanding the wine zone
In addition to the battle over Calvary Chapel's expansion plans, the county is also in the process of considering expanding its wine country zoning area from 7,000 acres to nearly 19,000 acres, meaning a wide swath of the rolling hillside area east of the city would be off limits to churches if the ban is not lifted.

Tyler said he believes another issue for the farmers is financial since many churches make their facilities available for weddings, which would compete with the lucrative special events operations by the wineries.

"Christians go to church, then lunch," the attorney said. "They bring money into the economy. It's really hard for them to make a reasonable argument why they shouldn't allow the church."

One of the factors that could come into play is the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Signed into law by President Bill Clinton, the act protects houses of worship from unreasonable zoning ordinances, except in cases of health and safety. Tyler said the church is prepared to file a lawsuit if Calvary Church is denied the new permit.

"We must defend the right to assemble against discriminatory zoning laws and land-use regulations, or else governmental officials will be able to zone out Christians whenever it is politically expedient."

For more information on the issue from the church's perspective, visit www.winecountryfreedom.com.