At a prayer meeting last night, members of New Life Church gathered to ask God to intervene and guide the church through its trials with the Ann Arbor City Council. Taking turns, each member present praised God and requested that in some way He oversee the court dispute the church is involved in with the city of Ann Arbor.
When New Life Church brought a proposal to Ann Arbor City Council last year to add a 9,490 square foot auditorium to the church, it sought a larger space for its congregation, which currently meets in the Modern Languages Building, to assemble. However, after listening to the concerns of many community members, the City Planning Commission ruled against a new auditorium, prompting a lawsuit in which New Life Church said it felt the City was discriminating based against on religious factors.
The community members who had attended City Council meetings when the addition of an auditorium was being debated expressed concerns about safety if the plan was approved.
While New Life Church originally subpoenaed these individuals from surrounding North Burn Park and Oxbridge neighborhoods, it withdrew these subpoenas last week. But New Life attorney David French was unavailable to comment on what grounds the subpoenas were issued.
Church members have been asked by the church leaders not to comment, said Chris Mann, a University alum and New Life Church member. New Life pastor Steve Hayes was unavailable for comment as well.
The issuing of subpoenas to residents who testified against the church was unexpected chiefly because acts such as this have never happened before, said Andrea Van Houweling, a member of the city ordinance committee and a member of the North Burns Park Association.
“It was a highly unusual thing,” Van Houweling said. “Subpoenaing the Planning Commission would have been expected, but issuing subpoenas to citizens who came to the public hearing to speak about their concerns is rare.”
Van Houweling said she was also surprised because the lawsuit is against the city of Ann Arbor, not the residents who spoke out against the church’s building plans.
Issuing subpoenas to residents who perform their civic duty by attending public hearings and speaking about their concerns is tantamount to harassment, she added.
“Anything on our hard drive in our computers that pertained to the New Life Church could be viewed,” she said.
The residents who received subpoenas were ordered to provide all documents in their possession regarding the New Life church and their petition — including e-mails, journals, calendars and any other related materials, Van Houweling said.
“It’s a matter of principle — if the citizens of Ann Arbor think that they will be requested to provide all of this information because of practicing their civic duty, then they won’t,” Van Houweling added.
The major concern of the planning commission and the residents who testified against the church was safety, Van Houweling said.
In November, when the proposal for the auditorium was rejected, many community members expressed regret that they had interfered with the church’s expansion plans but said they felt strongly that an auditorium would be a safety hazard and out of character with the rest of the city because of its large size.
The main safety concern most members felt was an issue was the South Forest Street parking structure that church members would use. Opponents of the auditorium said they feared that after parking in the structure, New Life members would cut across dangerous city roads illegally to get to church. The result could be more traffic accidents and danger to pedestrians, said Prue Heikkinen, president of the Oxbridge Neighborhood Association.
“Jaywalking is the problem,” Heikkinen said. “This is almost the exact same situation seen on Plymouth — two girls were killed crossing the street; the stories parallel.”
Street congestion was another concern, Van Houweling added.
“Even on Sunday, when there is extra parking, it is all full,” she said. “There really is no parking around; they were only going to increase the congestion.”