Religion has no place in zoning dispute

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Editor’s note: This editorial was originally published in The Roanoke Times in advance of a September trial in the Oracle Institute’s religious discrimination lawsuit against Grayson County. The trial has now been postponed until November.

Laura George’s neighbors may not like her outspoken personality or her views on religion, but those matters have no place in a zoning decision.
The Grayson County supervisors exposed their taxpayers to a costly lawsuit by bowing to heated and misguided opposition from church groups last year.
George’s plans for a spiritual education center, library and 10 guest cabins on 11 acres along the New River are within the law. The land is zoned for rural farm use, which allows schools, places of worship and community centers with a permit.
Incidentally, kennels, mining operations, commercial slaughterhouses and hog operations are also acceptable uses under the same classification.
The county planning commission unanimously approved George’s request last year, but supervisors overturned that decision following an emotional public hearing in which local pastors and church groups condemned George’s Oracle Institute as un-Christian. Supervisors cited concerns about the impact to the health, safety and welfare of the community.
As is usual in Grayson County, the combatants in this case have a history. George previously sued to block the initial site chosen for a state prison in 2006. Supervisors supported the plan because it promised to create 375 jobs, even though the 80-acre complex would have generated heavy traffic to a remote spot that lacked road access and was more than four miles from public utilities. A proposed $10 million bridge to reach the site would have required condemnation of George’s property.
The prison was ultimately built in a more satisfactory location. County officials say there is no lingering bad blood.
More troubling for the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville civil liberties group, are the religious overtones of the zoning battle over the Oracle Institute. The group is representing George in a lawsuit claiming religious discrimination.
Supervisors have every right to address concerns about parking and event attendance.
George has agreed to cut the maximum attendance allowed for events at her retreat from 200 to 100 people. If the 20 parking spaces proposed are too many or too few, supervisors could seek additional concessions. That’s an appropriate discussion.
But supervisors allowed religious opposition to flame out of control.
They still have time to make things right. If they refuse, a judge will no doubt do it for them.