The Plymouth Brethren Church community of Lake Albert breathes a sigh of relief after Wagga Wagga Town Council narrowly approved its application for the development of a ‘small meeting hall’ at 53 Gregadoo Road during the meeting of the board on Monday 14 February.
The church meeting hall development is on a 2518 square meter block. Council staff recommended the development for approval as they believed it complied with the provisions of local planning legislation and could limit hours of use with conditions of consent.
One of the opponents of the development was local resident Andrew Behan who called the development “a church in house disguise” and challenged earlier inferences that the opponents were motivated by a distaste for the Brethren Church community. .
“Our opposition is not about religion, it’s about conformity,” Behan said.
“If this development were Catholic, Anglican, Baptist or Islamic, or any other religion, I would stand here before you with the same objections based on the same principle.”
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Mr Behan described council staff’s reasons for recommending approval as ‘grey and vague’, arguing that 45 out of 46 residents had followed the R5 (large residence) zoning targets and that it was unfair to leave a landlord lot deviate from these objectives. He also cited legislation that said a development application had to take into account existing uses in its vicinity.
He asked councilors whether approval for the development ‘would stand the pub test’ and wondered how Springvale Nursery, despite the same zoning restrictions, could be recommended for rejection.
Mr. Behan also said the lack of parity for neighboring ratepayers, using their old building in Tatton, which pays 38 cents per square meter compared to its neighbor who pays $4.63, because it is classified as property of the ‘church.
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“It’s not fair and just and frankly offensive to those of us who use the same public infrastructure provided by Wagga Council,” he said.
Glen White was another naysayer who spoke at the meeting and cited the reasons given for the daycare’s rejection and argued that the same reasoning could be applied to the development of the church, and hinted at his confusion that the same staff member could achieve polar opposite results.
Mr White also raised concerns about the future development of the site should the church ever decide to sell the property, which would not require approval for a zoning change.
Trevor Nason, a senior member of the Brethren community, lives in a nearby property at 43 Gregadoo Road.
He spoke of the value of the property to his faith and the faith of several other local families. He explained why the building was relevant to a religion that has existed within Wagga Wagga for over 50 years.
“As a community, we have a main living room or meeting room in each city where the Brothers reside. There are over 80 towns across Australia and over 300 around the world that have a Brethren community and we have a main town hall,” Mr Nason said.
“Then we have a small, what we call a subdivision room, which is a small meeting room, in the quarters where the families of the Brothers live.
“We need a local subdivision room in this compound to practice our faith. There are 10 families now living on either side of Gregadoo Road in Wagga and we need a small meeting room in the area,” he said.
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Mr. Nason revealed that the meeting room will rarely gather more than 50 people and that being low key to the wider community is an important part of their faith. He said the group is ready to do whatever is necessary to make it more acceptable to close neighbors.
Councilor Tim Koschel questioned Mr. Nason on the nature and necessity of the 6 a.m. start for Sunday morning gatherings, which is part of the Brethren Church faith. Mr. Nason responded by saying that the early start is essential to their faith and therefore to the overall sustainability of the development.
Councilor Mick Henderson argued that a 2,500 square meter block was a large area for a “small meeting place” and asked if other more suitable options had been explored. Mr Nason said there was no alternative.
Following the recommendation of council staff, councilors then voted five to four in favor of approving the development.