Choosing a site for your new church

Twelve factors that, in addition to influencing the cost of your church building project, can even affect how your congregation grows.

Norman L. Meager, a retired pastor now living in Sonora, California, has been involved in the design and/or building of more than 20 churches and schools and has served as building consultant to the Ohio Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Real estate people say that in selecting a home three factors are of prime importance: the first is location, the second is location, and the third is location. This caveat is as true of churches as it is of homes. Selecting a good building site is no easy task but will do more for your project in relation to time invested than most any other thing you could do. It will pay rich dividends in the overall function and appearance of your project and may to a large extent determine the growth of your congregation. This choice often directly affects even the success of the building program itself; congregations lose interest in the whole project when the location chosen is not attractive to them.

There are at least a dozen factors you must research carefully in order to find a property that will suit the needs of your church and that will not lead to unnecessary difficulties in developing it for use. The church building committee should view these 12 factors as a whole, avoiding the dissension that focusing on only one or two factors may engender. I have listed the 12 more or less in order of importance, although any one of them may become determinative in the final choice. Numbers 4 through 7 affect church growth, the others pertain to cost. You may be able to add to this list factors peculiar to your own geographic location.

1. Cost. In most areas of the nation, cost of the propertyincluding purchase, site preparation, and utility hook upsshould fall in the range of 10 to 20 percent of the total cost of the project. However, you should not allow the desire for economy to push you into buying an inferior site.

2. Size. The purchase of a site that is the wrong size is a common error. Maintaining a large property requires more care than a small or even a medium-sized church may find it convenient to provide. Remember that unless the entire church property is attractive, it will detract from the church building itself. On the other hand, a lot that is too small and provides no green areas or gives the appearance of being squeezed in between neighboring buildings is also unappealing.

When you are considering a lot, draw a rough layout of it, showing the location of the church, the parking area, and the driveways. Be sure the landscaped area is not so large as to be difficult to maintain avoid the mistake of buying land that eventually grows up in weeds. Some times the amount you can save by purchasing a smaller-sized lot is considerable and can be applied to the building itself.

3. Jurisdiction. Whether or not the design and construction of your church come under the jurisdiction of the city, township, county, or the state will have major impact on your project. Zoning, building codes, utility costs, and street requirements vary widely, depending on the entity dictating them. Before proceeding with purchase of the property and design of the building, determine what jurisdictions control development of your site. Regulations dealing with lot setback distances for your building, parking, driveways, landscaping, and screening, and innumerable codes relating to the structure itself, will be enforced, and you must plan for them to avoid costly errors and disappointment.

4. Centrality. This relates to the population of the area to be served by your church and the location of the property within that area. Factors you need to look at here include your present membership and projected growth. The distance people are willing to travel to church will determine the size of the area you consider.

5. Visibility. It is highly desirable that your church be seen by as many of the residents in the area it serves as possible. With the use of a map, you should determine what streets or highways offer this exposure and restrict your search for property to those thoroughfares. Most county recorder's offices make available at a nominal cost real estate maps that can aid you in locating an optimal lot.

6. Accessibility. Although related to centrality, this criterion also gives consideration to driveway access and the flow of traffic to your site from main arteries and expressways. You can enhance attendance and growth by taking this factor into account.

7. Neighborhood. Ideally, your congregation should build its new church in a growing or stable neighborhood rather than in an old, declining section (usually identified by housing 40 years old or older). Having substantial and aesthetically attractive immediate neighborhood properties will provide stability for the future of your church. Investigate the zoning use permitted for vacant lots in the area so that future development will not prove an unpleasant surprise.

8. Zoning. Almost invariably, commercial property is far more costly than residential. Most cities require a variance to build a church on either one. Normally you will need some architectural assistance to prepare for your appearance before the zoning board.

9. Utilities. Early in the process, well before selecting a site, contact your gas, electric, water, sanitary, and storm sewer offices to determine whether each of these services is available and approximately how much it will cost to bring them to the site and to connect with your facility. In some cases you will need to install a well or a septic system or arrange for propane gas. Again, you will need to obtain accurate estimates of the avail ability and costs of these essentials.

10. Soil/Subsoil. In some areas of the country, weak or wet or sliding soils pose a problem. You may need to arrange for soil tests, sometimes including test boring, to determine the weight-bearing capacity of the subsoil. In other places, soil saturation may make the use of a septic system difficult or even impossible. If you will need to use a septic system on the site you are considering, have percolation tests made before purchasing the property. You will also need to determine whether or not good quality water can be found if your site necessitates a well.

11. Terrain. The topography of your proposed sitewhether the land slopes gradually or steeply, whether it slopes up to the rear, down to the rear, to the right or the leftwill largely determine the design of your church. Ordinarily, a nearly level lot is preferable. A lot sloping downward to the rear may allow a walkout basement. A lot sloping gradually up to the rear provides an attractive setting for the church. Right and left slopes are more difficult to handle, and a lot sloping steeply up to the rear is one of the most difficult. Creeks, gullies, or ditches may require drainage, filling, or a bridge, and are not desirable. Drainage of rainwater from your property can become a difficult problem if the authorities have strict codes in this regard.

12. Traffic. For the safety of the attendees, you need to consider the number of lanes in the street, the traffic count at the time meetings will be held, turning access lanes, and driveway location. The agency governing street or highway access may have suggestions or opinions in regard to this.

I must make one more point. Some times a member or friend of the church offers to donate a piece of property as a building site. For the welfare and future growth of the congregation, the church building committee should appraise that proffered property in terms of all 12 factors. If it does not meet the criteria, the committee should not allow the property to be forced upon the church to its detriment. Most sincere donors will be happy to offer the property to the church with the understanding that if it does not meet the criteria, it may be sold at an appraised figure and the proceeds used for the purchase of a site chosen by the congregation.

If you carefully follow these recommendations, you can be virtually assured of a site that will serve your church and your ministry well.

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Norman L. Meager, a retired pastor now living in Sonora, California, has been involved in the design and/or building of more than 20 churches and schools and has served as building consultant to the Ohio Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

September 1988

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