by Rick Langenberg:
Woodland Park’s mega ministries and bible college has won another key victory, with the WP Planning Commission blessing their amended plans for the next major phase of their development.
This project, expected to be completed in the summer of 2016, calls for a huge auditorium, equipped to seat 3,185 people, and a five-story parking garage, with 1,083 vehicle stalls, allowing the religious/educational development, just west of town, to obtain a parking capacity of 1,440 cars.
By a unanimous vote, and with hardly any concerns by neighboring residents, the planning commission gave the go-ahead for the group’s revised plans representing more ambitious parking and auditorium bids than previously proposed.
But the additional plans don’t really change the overall footprint of the ministries development, previously approved by city leaders in 2012. These called for a 200,000-square-foot-plus religious and education center, an amphitheater, pavilion, gate house, a bible college and associated housing. The group has already opened the first phase of its development, a 76,312 square-foot meeting hall and classroom building that currently handles about 600 students for the Charis Bible College.
However, the one remaining obstacle for Wommack Ministries hinges on continued opposition from the area’s main emergency services organization, the Northeast Teller County Fire Protection District. In a letter to the city planning department, the Northeast Teller fire department recommended denial of the new plans, contending they don’t have the resources to provide services to such a large development without additional tax revenue. Due to its non-profit status, Wommack Ministries doesn’t have to pay any property taxes, a source of contention among some leaders in the community. “As a tax exempt facility, the Northeast Teller County Fire District is extremely concerned with the increased incident complexity and demand for emergency response services at this assembly occupancy. Without receiving additional funding to meet the demand for adequate staffing, equipment and training, the (Charis) Bible College seriously compromises the department’s ability to safely mitigate emergencies at the college as well as the community as a whole,” stated the agency in its letter. The fire district officials urged the city to consider alternative funding methods, in lieu of taxes.
However, no representatives from the fire department appeared at the planning commission hearing last Thursday to address these concerns. The agency’s objections amounted to the only real opposition to the Wommack Ministries’ revised plans. This letter from the fire department, though, got the attention of several commissioners, who wondered about the legal ramifications for the city. “It is a huge concern for me,” said Commissioner Marti Propes. She and other planning commissioners questioned what happens if the fire department doesn’t sign off on the ministries’ plans. “Does the city have any liability?” questioned Commissioner Jerry Penland. “I would hope that something can be done,” said resident Brooke Smith, in describing the current rift between the fire department and Wommack Ministries over compensation for services. “I know this is a scary thing. “This (the proposed expanded auditorium) is 60 percent larger than the Pikes Peak Center.”
Planning Commission Chairman Jon DeVaux reminded the Wommack representatives of the size of their project in relation to Woodland Park, and asked them if they had an emergency services contingency plan. “You have a small town,” said DeVaux, in referring to the group’s educational and religious facilities. He urged the group to have more dialogue with the Northeast Teller Fire Department. That said, DeVaux advised the commission that the fire and emergency services issue wasn’t one they could address as a board that mainly evaluates the technical merits of a proposed development project. He cited a list of conditional criteria that the group had to review.
City Attorney Erin Smith echoed similar sentiments. More specifically, she advised the commission that unless fire codes were violated, the department had no veto authority in denying the plans. “It (the fire department’s request for denial) is a recommendation based on something outside of fire codes,” said Smith.
For several years, fire district leaders have stressed the problems they face in providing services to Wommack Ministries and other new large-scale developments. When Wommack Ministries got its initial plans approved, the department leaders had requested an annual compensation payment of $80,000 to $100,000. This request was rejected by Wommack Ministries, who contended that this could create problems with its tax-exempt status and In meeting the obligations of its donors. City officials also argued this would set a bad precedent.
Like they did in a previous meeting in the summer of 2012, Wommack representatives last week contended they would work with fire department in any way in assuring their facilities were safe and even in establishing a training center for the agency and offering many incentives. But they didn’t make any promises about offering what the agency really desired: more money. The Wommack representatives also downplayed the impact of their revised plans, noting that this would not result in any increase in the number of students that would attend classes at Charis Bible College.
No objections from neighbors
Other than the fire and emergency services issue, the group’s revised plans got met with no opposition. Planning Director Sally Riley heavily praised the group for the work it had done so far. “I was pleasantly surprised,” said Riley, in describing how the first phase of the Wommack project had blended extremely well with the environment. Steve Roshek of the adjacent Westwood Lakes subdivision also complimented the ministries group. “They have been a very good neighbor,” said Roshek.
Some commission members asked when Charis would achieve its goal of housing 3,000 students and inquired about updates on its student housing plans. In a compromise move, Wommack Ministries agreed to craft a deal with a for-profit developer to build housing for students on its campus. This would create additional property tax revenue for local governments.
Operations manager Larry Bozeman, though, indicated the group has hit a slight legal snag with its housing plans due to its tax-exempt status in regards to certain requirements by the internal Revenue Service. As for its student growth, Bozeman doesn’t expect Charis to obtain the 3,000-student level for at least another five or six years. However, he is optimistic that Wommack Ministries could complete its next phase by the summer of 2016. Besides a new auditorium and parking garage, this phase includes administrative offices and an apartment for Andrew Wommack and his family.
One thing local leaders have learned about Wommack Ministries is that when their leaders set goals for building facilities, they mean business. The initial Charis Bible College facility, the first phase of its project, represents one of the most aggressive development projects in meeting time deadlines in the history of Woodland Park. The facility, along with a hefty amount in infrastructure improvements, amounting to a $25 million package, was completed within 12 months.
With the approval of the revised plans for an expanded auditorium and parking facility, the ministries group can now obtain zoning development and building permits for its next stage. It doesn’t have to submit its proposal before the city council, based on the guidelines of the Woodland Park planning department.