Photo by Joe Olivieri
Expansions must meet Austin groundwater protection rules
Southwest Austin houses of worship are expanding, but their plans are grander than larger walls and more pews.
Their site plans include community centers and gathering spaces. The idea is to better serve the faithful and use these new facilities to draw new believers.
There are three projects on a 3-mile stretch of Hwy. 71 alone:
- Southwest Family Fellowship is planning a 15,000-square-foot addition, including an auditorium and education buildings;
- Muslim congregation Masjid Ibrahim is doing site work to build a new mosque, classroom facility and residence;
- and PromiseLand West Bible Church continues to build its Dream City worship center and 1,000-seat outdoor amphitheater with lawn area.
Elsewhere in South Austin, Bethany Lutheran Church just opened its new community center, and Woodlawn Baptist Church just completed a major renovation to its exterior. Last year, First Evangelical Free Church built a coffee shop on its property.
One City of Austin official said the biggest challenge for these and other congregations may be building in the Barton Springs Zone, a drinking water protection zone and a key supplier for recharging the Edwards Aquifer.
“Religious assembly [land uses] are permitted in all zones, but in Southwest Austin, you have stricter laws governing impervious cover, setbacks, building height, tree preservation and stormwater management,” said Christopher Johnson, City of Austin Development Assistance Center manager.
Church officials say they want to build in Southwest Austin because of the people they can serve there.
Anthony Scoma, lead pastor at Southwest Family Fellowship, said there are people from every background in this area.
PromiseLand West Executive Pastor Michael Heflin has said that his church is building the outdoor theater as a way to reach those who would not otherwise attend a church function.
In late March, Heflin said he saw the venue as a way to reach local teenagers struggling with both the challenges of growing up and more serious concerns such as depression, drugs and thoughts of suicide.
“I see this amphitheater, and I see those kids,” he said.
Growing the flock
Many newer congregations got their start meeting in rented secular spaces. For example, PromiseLand West meets in the Westlake Performing Arts Center, and Fellowship Church Southwest—no relation to Southwest Family Fellowship—meets at Bowie High School.
Scoma said Southwest Family Fellowship met for years in the Barton Creek Square Mall movie theater, AMC Barton Creek Square 14. It moved into the former Oak Hill Assembly of God property in July 2009.
According to the mosque’s website, Masjid Ibrahim was established in 2001 and draws from hundreds of Muslim families living in the surrounding area.
Mosque officials declined to comment at this stage of construction, but according to the mosque’s website, the first phase will be a two-story, 16,000-square-foot building with prayer halls, religious classrooms, office space and an activity center.
Later construction phases include a parking garage and a residence for the mosque’s imam, or religious leader.
The mosque has raised $600,000 toward the estimated $1.4 million needed for its first phase.
Houses of worship must prepare for a rigorous environmental city review process.
Johnson said that most of the land west of West Gate Boulevard is located in the Barton Springs Zone.
The city has strict regulations for impervious cover, the percentage of land covered by buildings, parking or surfaces where water cannot seep back into the soil. Percentages in the Barton Springs Zone range from 15 percent to 25 percent, Johnson said.
Churches need to build detention and retention ponds so rainwater does not carry pollutants from roads into the aquifer. Developers must work to make runoff levels match what they were before construction started. Southwest Family Fellowship was able to be grandfathered into older regulations. As a result, it can build on 65 percent of its land rather than 15 percent.
“If we were in another area, we would need 12 acres for what we plan to do on 3 acres,” Scoma said. “At 12 acres, you’re starting to get into [millions of dollars to purchase property].”
A slow process
Even a growing flock does not mean a congregation can move quickly. PromiseLand West bought land on Hwy. 71 in 2007 but did not break ground until late 2011. It took 11 months to get its Dream City site plan approved. How the plan was approved is the subject of a lawsuit in the Travis County courts. Two neighborhood associations are suing the city to stop construction of the controversial outdoor amphitheater (see sidebar).
City documents show that mosque officials submitted their site plan in November 2009 and received approval in March 2011.
Scoma said it took 18 months for the Southwest Family Fellowship’s site plan to be approved.
He added that when work is completed in January 2013, it will be the second new church facility built since the early 1990s when the Save Our Springs Ordinance was passed. If completed on schedule, Dream City may be the first.