New Parking Ordinance Helping Churches
Updated: Feb 5
Written by Richard C. Baker
The author of Ecclesiastes wrote that there is nothing new under the sun. So just as the Jews returning from Babylon after the Exile found their building project for a new temple mired in red tape and neighbors’ objections for many years (Ezra 4:4; Nehemiah 4:1-9), so too every pastor or church board looking to purchase, build, renovate or expand a church in Chicago knows, it can be extremely hard to find the right property given the City’s zoning process. While there are many written and unwritten rules governing the process of obtaining zoning permission in Chicago, Chicago’s parking requirements are among the most burdensome. For churches and other religious assemblies, the Chicago Zoning Ordinance (“CZO”) requires 1 parking space for every 8 seats in a church’s sanctuary. Thus, a church with a sanctuary that can seat 350 persons needs 44 parking spaces (350/8) in order to meet the City’s zoning requirements. Given the lack of parking in Chicago and the limited availability of land, this can be a very heavy burden.
Recognizing this dilemma not only for churches but other zoning uses, the Chicago City Council recently enacted zoning legislation, which can make the establishment of a church or its expansion easier by allowing certain exceptions to its parking requirements. The City’s new legislation may allow for up to a 100% reduction in the parking requirement for properties located within 1,320 feet of the centerline of certain transit routes including train and bus routes.
So, if your church is looking to purchase or expand its facility, once the acquisition or building project is identified, the church must determine whether the property has adequate parking to meet the CZO requirements. Part of that evaluation will include the property’s proximity to public transportation since that may allow for a reduction in the City’s parking requirements.
If the property can meet the City’s parking requirements, the zoning district that the property lies in must be determined. In Chicago these districts include residential, business, commercial, industrial and planned development zones. Only in residential districts are church assembly uses allowed “of right.” This means that if a church is purchasing property in a residential district, it would not have to get special permission from the City to locate at a particular location. For most business, commercial and planned development districts, however, churches must obtain “special use” approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals. In industrial districts churches are not permitted to locate at all.
The special use process in Chicago is both expensive and time consuming. It requires hiring architects and appraisers and working with the Zoning Department to meet the CZO requirements. It also involves successfully navigating Chicago’s deep political waters. As mentioned above, in Chicago there are both written and unwritten rules. Among the unwritten rules is the universal practice in Chicago known as “aldermanic privilege.” That is, you must have aldermanic approval for the project or it will almost assuredly be denied the requested special use zoning. As part of the aldermanic approval process, the Alderman usually refers the matter to a neighborhood review committee or holds a town hall. This practice affords the each alderman a great deal of political leverage in determining who comes into his Ward and on what terms. Not surprisingly, to obtain a parking reduction of over 50%, you must also give the alderman of the Ward in which the property is located 10 day notice before making application.
The attorneys at Mauck & Baker have developed effective strategies to help churches and not-for-profit organizations navigate the rough waters of Chicago’s zoning process for over 30 years. Our firm also regularly challenges Chicago and other municipalities in court when clients are unfairly zoned out of a community or district or when the regulations placed upon them are unduly burdensome. If your church is looking to acquire land or planning a building project, we invite you to give Mauck & Baker a call work with you at every stage of the process.