Boynton Beach clears path for Christ Fellowship megachurch to move into closed Dillard's store

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. - City commissioners Tuesday lifted a hurdle to a Palm Beach Gardens megachurch moving a worship center into the closed Dillard's store at Boynton Beach Mall.

The commission voted 3-1 to exempt religious groups from a six-month moratorium on nonprofits in business areas that it instituted in November.

That green-lights the plan by Christ Fellowship, believed to be Palm Beach County's largest congregation, to buy a closed 127,000-square-foot department store at the mall on Congress Avenue and have thousands of people worship there each week.

City planners said in a report for Tuesday's meeting that the worship center would have limited effects on both traffic and city coffers and rejecting it might expose the city to civil rights lawsuits.

Commissioner Steven Holzman, Tuesday's "no" vote, has said this is too big a project to rush into and the moratorium is about the city's entire economic health, not just one church.

"We have time," Holzman said Tuesday. "They'll (the church) be here in three months."

But the church's land planner, Donaldson Hearing, told commissioners Dillard's has indicated a delay could kill the deal.

"At the end of even four more months, they're (city planners) going to come back to you with the same conclusions," Hearing said. "We cannot wait."

Vice Mayor Bill Orlove said the church would "bring some much needed vibrancy to that area of town." And, he said, "I don't see anybody else knocking down our doors to say, 'I want to move into the Dillard's site.'"

The church has said it will donate $25,000 a year, which it says is less than it would pay in property taxes were it not a nonprofit. The city has said that, with other fees, the total loss in revenue is about $40,000.

And, a church presentation said, "Thousands of people each week are expected to bring their good will and their wallets," patronizing the mall as well as area shops and restaurants.

Hobe Sound-based economist Don Delaney, hired by the church, said the assessed property value of the Dillard's property, at the remotest part of the mall, has dropped from more than $6 million in 2005 to $3.3 million.

Delaney said the church would put $9 million into redeveloping the site, which would generate $20.7 million in the local economy. He said it would create 348 construction jobs and 35 permanent jobs with a payroll of more than $1.5 million.

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