Susie Wheeler and Dawn Brokaw, neighbors in Scottsdale’s Cactus Corridor, have been complaining about the new church in their neighborhood for months.
They allege that CitiChurch, a Christian church, did not put in adequate landscaping and failed to turn off its outside lights at 10 p.m.
And the pair said the church pushed too far a month ago when it placed a green-andwhite sign in a public horse trail, directing congregation members to park there.
"That’s when it really got bad," Brokaw said.
So many people attend the church, at 9610 E. Cactus Road, that vehicles spill out of the parking lot and on to surrounding streets. The church only finished construction last November and already has a congregation of more than 700, said Terry Crist, senior pastor.
When such large institutions build in Scottsdale — they’re dubbed "megachurches" — the churches and their neighbors ar- gue the fit is sometimes too tight. Schools have also been at odds with the communities around them, often landing in fights when they attempt to increase their enrollment.
Opponents have been labeled antischool and antireligion for their stances.
But that label is not fitting, said John Berry, a Scottsdale zoning attorney. The issue is not how a building is used, but how big it is and how many people will use it, he said.
"Some churches and schools are getting larger and it used to be your church would be a little neighborhood parish or church or synagogue," Berry said. "And now it seems like we’re supersizing everything including our churches and schools. And that’s going to lead to an exacerbation, or a magnification, of the challenges of locating schools and churches in neighborhoods."
Berry has represented numerous schools and churches and argued that difficulties can be averted if neighborhoods are involved in the planning.
Neighbors have claimed that the churches and schools occupy space in their communities, but are not actually part of them, as their members come from other neighborhoods and other cities.
In the case of CitiChurch, Crist said the congregation has swelled with Scottsdale residents. He dismissed the idea that people drive across the Valley to go to church.
There are other examples. On July 5, the City Council voted unanimously to reject an application by SonRise Community Church to build a kindergarten through eighthgrade Christian school in north Scottsdale.
Council members sided against the church after neighbors fought the school proposal for more than a year. They argued it would have generated huge amounts of traffic in their community with cars dropping off and picking up students five days a week.
In addition, Graham Kettle, a resident who led the opposition against SonRise’s application, said the students served by the school would not have come from the surrounding neighborhood.
"From the point of view of the neighbors, that’s like having two Wal-Marts next door," said Councilman Bob Littlefield.
As the SonRise case showed, schools’ efforts to build have led to battles.
Most recently, Foothills Academy, also in north Scottsdale, was found to have admitted more students than its permit allowed.
The school avoided losing its permit, but must lower its enrollment by the start of next school year. Meanwhile, it is applying to alter its permit to allow for more students.
In 2000, the Creative Arts School for Youth also had more students than it was allowed. The council approved a higher enrollment for the school.
Neighbors have become agitated over increased traffic as the private schools have grown.
"They come in (asking) for 50 kids, then they come in for 80 kids, then they come in for 115 kids," Wheeler said of how schools every few years ask for increased enrollment.
This is nothing new to Scottsdale, Berry said. When he was growing up here, Berry said he has memories of neighborhoods raising complaints against even public schools.
"The neighbors don’t want anything that they think is not residential. It starts with that," said Lynne LaGarde, a Phoenix zoning attorney who represented SonRise.
Brokaw and Wheeler disagree, pointing out there are other churches in their neighborhood that enhance it. But CitiChurch is not one of them, they said.
Wheeler and Brokaw are horse enthusiasts and have been active in lobbying the city’s political leaders to protect their part of central Scottsdale, labeled Cactus Corridor, for equestrian uses. And thus, to them cars parked on a horse trail was a city code violation and a personal offense.
The excess cars have been directed to park on private property nearby, Crist said, providing a solution to that problem. However, he said his congregation members never violated code because there were no signs designating the trail.
In addition, Crist said, his church is not "mega."
"They are being painted with a broad brush when it is alleged ‘megachurches’ come in and gobble up the property. None of us are megachurches," Crist said.