For years Valor Christian Center in Gilbert has been trying to grow its small congregation.
Now it wants a bigger sign with electronic messaging to help reach that goal by catching motorists’ attention on Warner Road, east of Higley Road.
But first the church needs a variance from the town for the sign, which is larger than what is allowed under code.
It wants a 14-foot-high, 64-square-foot sign with electronic messaging on both sides. Under the SF-8 zoning for the church property, the town allows a maximum of 8 feet high and 32 square feet for the sign with electronic messaging on one side.
“Businesses have signs to promote who they are and what they have to offer,” said Associate Pastor Thor Strandholt at a March 8 hearing.
“The sign will announce upcoming activities. A professional-looking sign will allow us to stop putting banners up on poles, which is what we’ve had to do over the years and with the zone variance it would allow us the opportunity to have a sign big enough for people to see that are cruising down Warner.”
Valor Christian, built in 2008, hosts a number of community events such as its annual Desert Harvest Car Show, which benefits veterans and a fireworks stand to benefit youths.
The church, located on 6.7 acres at the southeast corner of Claiborne Avenue and Warner in a residential neighborhood, currently has a 5-foot-tall, 22-square-foot monument sign on Warner.
Planner Samantha Novotny told Zoning Hearing Officer Mitesh Patel that staff recommended denial of the variance as it did not meet all four of the town’s criteria.
She said the church’s request was not a special circumstance case involving an irregular-shaped lot, location in a floodplain zone or having utility easements in an abnormal location.
She added that a house of worship in a residential neighborhood is not unique as there are nine other churches in similar locations in town and approving Valor’s variance would constitute a grant of special privileges, which is not allowed.
Patel asked if any of those nine churches had signs greater than what was allowed by their zoning. Novotny said “no.”
Valor Christian also could have created the special circumstance by not going through with its intention to rezone the land to Neighborhood Commercial and installing the larger sign by right, according to Novotny.
Valor Christian paused the case after learning that a rezone would hamper its approved plans to enlarge the church by 42,204 square feet because the new zoning would cap the expansion at 25,000 square feet.
Also, the church didn’t meet the finding that the variance would not be a detriment to the neighborhood, according to Novotny, who said the larger sign would be “very impactful if granted.”
She also said that the church isn’t utilizing the sign code to the full extent, which allows for up to four signs – three on Warner Road and one on its entrance off Claiborne Avenue.
Staff suggested that the church increase its current sign to the maximum allowed of 8 feet high and 32 square feet but the church declined, Novotny said.
She added she received two phone calls from residents opposed to the variance with one concerned an electronic sign would distract drivers.
Church attorney Erik Stanley said the proposed signage would replace the monument sign and contended special circumstances apply to the property.
“The church has been there a long time,” Stanley said. “At the time it was built, it was just fields around it.”
He said that Warner Road at the time was two lanes with no median divider and a 25 to 35 mph speed limit. Warner now has six lanes with a grass median and a 45 mph speed limit.
“An important point here to make is the character of the property changed but not by the church but by the properties surrounding the church,” he argued.
The church is now surrounded by homes to the north, south and west and commercial to the east.
He argued that the special circumstance was not self-imposed by the church as staff stated.
He also questioned why the request for the larger sign is a problem now but wouldn’t be for the town had the church gone through with its rezone.
And, he disputed that the town would be granting special privileges if it allowed the larger sign.
Directly to the east of the church is a Life Storage facility on land zoned General Commercial and that business can have the size of sign the church is requesting, according to Stanley.
“Under GC that particular piece of property can have a sign like the church wants to have in its variance request,” Stanley said.
“And so in our opinion it really doesn’t make much sense that if Life Storage can have that kind of a sign, it can be located mere feet away from the church’s property, that the church itself with the property that is almost about the same in that same area cannot have that same sign.”
He also disputed that a larger sign would be detrimental to surrounding residences. He said there is over 420 feet of frontage on Warner, allowing plenty of room for the church to put the sign without damaging any nearby property.
He said also noted the sign would be dimmed at night and that a variance was less invasive than having four signs as allowed by code.
The church also is committed to working with its neighbors, he added.
Four residents spoke against the church’s request.
“The actual concern from my perspective and the neighborhood in general is an electronic messaging sign,” said Mark Fitch, who lives across the street from the church in Morrison Ranch’s Warner Groves neighborhood. “There’s nothing like that now and it will be certainly noticed, probably not in a good way for those who are residing there. We will be faced with looking at it constantly, 24/7.”
Fitch said if the church moved the proposed sign closer to the storage facility, it would probably be more welcomed.
“There are not homes directly across the street necessarily there but right now what you are proposing is right across the street from people,” he said.
Doralis Machado-Liddell, who lives downtown, said a variance would set precedence in that all churches “with 45 mph roadways would want this sign.”
“If I were to have my house as a church, would I be able to put a sign 30 feet in the air because I want people to come to my house to worship?” she asked.
“I have churches in my neighborhood and if they put this up, I would be so against it,” she said. “I would not want to live across the street from that sign.”
The Rev. Scott Whitwam said the church has had a good working relationship with Gilbert.
“We’ve specifically taken time over the last three administrations here with Mayor John Lewis, Mayor Jenn Daniels and Mayor Brigette Peterson to meet with them to find out what can we do more to be of a benefit to this community,” he said.
“We’re certainly not looking to create a grandstand; we’re not trying to create Las Vegas. We’re just trying to reach the community, let them know what we are doing.
“We are trying to find the least invasive way to be able to convey the message that we think we should be able to do on the property we have and the location we have and the circumstance that exist so that we can continue to carry on our mission, which is trying to be helpful to the community, helpful to people and make a difference in the Town of Gilbert.”
Patel has 10 days to issue a ruling.
I don't think any of the churches here should have a Vegas sign. They are too bright at night, and are a distraction to all drivers at all times. I can drive down entire streets of businesses mingled with residential and the only Vegas sign is in front of the church. Have any studies been done to say the Vegas sign is what is bringing in more people? I live near one of these signs. It is the ugliest thing on the street and makes me wish the church wasn't there at all.
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