Sugar Land City Council gives initial approval for new St. Laurence education center
By Betsy Dolan
A conditional use permit for a new religious education and day care center on the St. Laurence Catholic Church campus got preliminary approval from the Sugar Land City Council last week after an attempted eleventh hour compromise between the church and neighboring property owners didn’t materialize.
During the May 6 public hearing, the City Council heard from people on both sides of the year-long dispute with supporters arguing that the new $16.5 million “life center” is crucial for the growing church’s needs.
Opponents, whose Colony Park homes back up to the proposed 80,000 square foot building, are worried about their quality of life. They also accuse the church of ”bad faith negotiations” with so-called “Plan B”–an apparent compromise pitched by St. Laurence in the days leading up to the preliminary council vote.
Homeowners say that Plan B would have modified the location of the building so that it impacted fewer homeowners. As part of the agreement, the church requested that homeowners refrain from speaking at the public hearing. When the homeowners refused, they say Plan B was pulled.
“We were told that Plan B was not an ultimatum”, said Cindy Highsmith, who lives in Colony Park. “My husband and I knew that it would hurt our property values and the enjoyment of our home. We (signed) because we knew it would bring resolution to a contentious situation and would be best for all of Colony Park. But we wanted to preserve our right to speak”.
Steve Ewbank, the head of St. Laurence’s Building Committee, told the council that Plan B was another effort to compromise with homeowners. The church had already agreed to several concessions including building a masonry fence for homeowners prior to construction, frosting the building’s second story windows for privacy and various landscaping and screening measures.
“We were moving the building much farther away from the homeowners, compromising our parking and spending a great deal more money”, Ewbank told the council. “We were willing to do that because the homeowners said everything would go away if we pushed the building toward Austin Parkway. But it wasn’t good enough.”
After Planning and Zoning approved the permit in March, Colony Park homeowners who live within 200-feet of the proposed building signed a petition in opposition. Now, 75% of the City Council must vote for the permit for it to be approved. Councilwoman Amy Mitchell, who represents Colony Park, abstained from the vote on the initial reading.
Coucilmen Joe Zimmerman and Harish Jajoo urged both sides to continue to work on a compromise. The conditional use permit will come back for a second reading May 20.
Father Drew Wood addressed the council and described the 13-month long process as “a terrible ordeal”.
“We started out wanting to do something beautiful for our parish’s young people. We have cared about our neighbors. We don’t know what else to offer because every time something is offered, more is demanded. This has been a difficult time”, Father Wood said.
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