Suwanee planning board gives nod to Korean church

SUWANEE - A Korean congregation got a nod of approval Tuesday for its plan to build a 2,000-person church in a residential neighborhood.

Suwanee's planning and zoning board unanimously recommended that the Evergreen Presbyterian Church of Atlanta be allowed to annex more than 12 acres of county land into the city and put a new church on the property.

The land, on Smithtown Road between White Sands Way and Suwanee Creek Court, is next to a smaller church and surrounded by neighborhoods, planners said. The city allows churches in residentially zoned areas.

Planning commissioners rejected offers from Rob Ponder, an architect representing the church, to limit the number of parking spaces to 350 or reduce the size of two sanctuaries to accommodate 1,500 people instead of the requested 2,000. Conditions on the property would require a fence and a non-reflective roof, in addition to acceleration and deceleration lanes and a 50-foot undisturbed buffer around the property.

Neighbors who live in the area complained that such a large church would bring traffic to their roads and be out of character for the neighborhood.

"This is a huge building with a huge parking requirement that will have a huge impact on our small community," K.C. Cavanaugh said. "This will change our lives and it will change our neighborhoods forever. Nothing I have, my lifestyle, will ever be the same."

Ponder said residents are misrepresenting the impact the church will have. Unlike traditional American congregations, he said, the Korean community gathers after services to share a meal.

As such, the traffic impact will be spread out as people leave instead of putting all worshippers on the two-lane road at once, he said.

Pastor Byungho Kim said he does not understand the people who are opposed to the church, which currently has a 17,000-square-foot building on the city's Main Street downtown. About 90 percent of congregants live in Suwanee, he said.

Kim said he is confident that the Suwanee City Council, which will hear the annexation and rezoning April 24, will come to a similar conclusion as the planning board.

"I'm thankful to God," Kim said. "Prayer works. I prayed a lot about that. I'm really satisfied. They made a right decision."

More than 75 people attended the hearing, many of them church members who applauded the board's decision after the meeting concluded.

But not everyone in attendance was happy with the result. Tom McConnell, who is opposed to the church, said it would place an undue burden on the roads. Other neighbors commented that as a business, a large church would be more appropriate in a commercial area.

"Put any sign on it you want," McConnell said. "A building the size of a football field is a commercial building. They're setting a precedent."

Pete Charpentier, the board's chairman, said he attends a similar-sized church in Duluth on a two-lane road.

While Charpentier said he understood residents' concerns, he did not share them.

"Traffic is part of progress in Suwanee, and not everybody likes it," he said. "I think it will be OK."