Boynton Beach Mall megachurch debate heats up

, Fla. — A center that a megachurch wants to open at the Boynton Beach Mall would have limited effects on both traffic and city coffers, and rejecting it could expose the city to lawsuits, staffers said in a memo for Tuesday's city commission meeting.

The city also should keep a moratorium it enacted in November on nonprofits in business areas, but exempt religious groups, the memo said.

In December, Palm Beach Gardens-based Christ Fellowship, believed to be Palm Beach County's largest congregation, revealed plans to buy a closed 127,000-square-foot Dillard's department store at the mall on Congress Avenue and set up a satellite center where thousands of people would worship each week.

Commissioners worried about losses in revenue. But the church surprised them by offering to pay what the city would collect if the church weren't a nonprofit.

The loss would be about $40,000 a year, the report for Tuesday's meeting said. Christ Fellowship has offered an annual donation of $25,000, it said. But the church also would pay $315,000 in fees toward an estimated $9.24 million in improvements to the building.

An economic study would run $2,500 to $10,000 and take two to six weeks, the report said. A consultant for the church already is doing one, it said.

Commissioner Steven Holzman said the city shouldn't decide anything for six months to a year and shouldn't exempt religious institutions from the moratorium, which expires in the spring.

"There's no way, when you're doing a review of such magnitude, that a month and a half is enough time," Holzman said Friday.

Church officials familiar with the details of the project weren't available for comment Friday. But an attorney for the church told commissioners in December that waiting six months could kill the deal.

Mall giant Simon Property Group, which owns a little more than half the property in the 1.1-million-square-foot mall, put the struggling site up for sale in 2010.

The report said Simon, which does not own the Dillard's store, was "disappointed with the proposed sale" and warned the move could harm the mall's sale prospects and sale price.

Christ Fellowship's plan isn't unusual, the report said. More and more, religious institutions are taking advantage of troubled malls, it said.

Staffers couldn't find economic impact studies on other sites but said there's anecdotal evidence that mall managers often don't consider religious groups a plus and that they cut their leases when a retailer becomes available.

In this case, however, the worship center could increase traffic and sales in the mall, the report said.

Denying the church could bring legal problems, the report said. Specifically, it could violate the 2000 federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which bars governments from placing a "substantial burden" on religious groups without a good reason.

In a court fight, economic impact, historic preservation and neighborhood compatibility "may or may not be ultimately determined by courts to be 'compelling,' " the report said.

The worship center would generate 1,200 fewer traffic "trips" per weekday compared with an active retail store in that location, but with 1,400 projected seats, the report suggested 854 trips between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Sundays and 2,590 trips for the day.

It noted Christ Fellowship eventually hopes to serve about 9,000 worshippers each Sunday, so numbers could be far higher.

It also said most church traffic would come before the mall opened at noon.

The report also noted those numbers are puny. Typical weekday traffic on Congress Avenue in front of the mall is 43,496 trips.

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