Church Defended & Pot Pushers Stopped
Earlier this year, Church United profiled the case of a San Diego church that had been targeted by a marijuana production facility trying to use zoning ordinances to bully the congregation out of its location in order to establish a large growing operation in a nearby warehouse. Church United is happy to report that Vision Church San Diego has reached a successful settlement agreement in its lawsuit against the city of San Diego.
“It reaffirmed who we are, that we belong here in this building and, more importantly, that we belong here in this community serving the people that we serve,” Pastor Andy Ballon said of the settlement, adding that he was surprised at how quickly the city settled.
The agreement was reached May 15 after Advocates for Faith & Freedom, one of Church United’s ministry partners, filed suit on behalf of the church, alleging violations of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The much-needed law protects churches from undue and unequally applied zoning restrictions.
Last year, Vision Church was blindsided when city officials cited the congregation for eight code violations, including an unfounded allegation it was operating illegally in a FEMA flood zone.
The city singled out Andy’s church after receiving a zoning complaint by Cannversions Inc., a marijuana producer, which had unsuccessfully sought a permit to set up shop in a nearby warehouse. The Cannversions permit was denied because the church was within the 1,000-foot buffer zone protecting schools, churches and parks from cannabis-related enterprises. After the city denied the pot permit, Cannversions attempted to circumvent the church by offering to buy the property from the landlords, but the owners, thankfully, turned them down.
Hoping the third time was the charm, Cannversions tried to use zoning ordinances to finally rid themselves of the church. Their Plan C, Bullying, nearly prevailed after the city cited the church and ordered them to shut down or face $4,000 in daily fines, despite documented evidence that the church was not in a flood zone. But Pastor Andy, who has attended several Church United events, decided it was time to fight back.
“We do have a voice and we should use it and not just cover up that light that we have, which we have been doing for too long,” he said after the lawsuit was filed earlier this year.
“We have to fight for our right as Americans and also as a church. The church has been quiet too often. Too many times, I’ve seen churches kind of walk away and not stand up for their God-given right to worship.”
As part of the settlement, the city has waived all penalties and fees, plus agreed to pay the church’s legal fees.
“It was never about the money,” Pastor Andy said. “It was about our right to be here and our right to serve the community.”
Although satisfied about the outcome, Pastor Andy admits he was disappointed in the response, or rather lack of response, by his elected officials. Despite contacting the mayor, his councilman and state representatives, not one of them returned his calls.
“They ignored me,” he said. “They kind of put me the back burner. They didn’t really support me. They didn’t really reach out. I felt a little isolated from my elected officials for sure.”
Where they failed him, though, pastors from around the country and internationally provided much-needed spiritual support.
“It’s like a weight has been lifted,” he said, adding the church still has some permits pending and code compliance to complete, which Vision Church offered to do from the start.
“We felt like Moses at the banks of the water,” the pastor said. “There was nowhere to go. We didn’t have too many options. We just trusted in God… God made a way. He split the Red Sea for us and here we are. This is our home and we get to stay.”