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Industrial park becomes religious battleground

Jehovah's Witnesses want hall; officials want development

HARRISON TOWNSHIP — A religious group wanted a gathering place.

Township officials wanted something that would bring in jobs and tax revenue.

Now, an industrial park in far western Hamilton County is the site of a battle pitting religious freedom against economic development.

Should Hamilton County approve the Jehovah’s Witness assembly hall?


(183) 26.11%


(479) 68.33%

No opinion

(39) 5.56%

Total Votes: 701

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The Southwest Ohio Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses wants to build an 87,304-square-foot regional assembly hall with caretaker quarters, a maintenance building and a 1,729-space parking lot that could draw up to 5,000 people most weekends of the year.

Because the area is specifically designated for economic development, the group needs approval from Hamilton County’s Rural Zoning Commission to build it. But that five-member board sided with local business owners who fear traffic problems and elected officials who want to see something that brings in jobs and revenue.

Now it’s up to Hamilton County commissioners to settle the matter after the religious group appealed the zoning commission’s decision. People on both sides of the debate will plead their case before commissioners at their Wednesday meeting.

In the appeal, Jeff Tamayo, who represents the Southwest Ohio Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, wrote that the group was being treated unfairly because it is a religious organization. He points out exceptions were made for some businesses in the commerce park.

He argued the commission violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. That federal law says, “No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution” furthers a compelling government interest, or other additional specific exceptions.

Tamayo did not return a call for further comment.

Appeals to Rural Zoning Commission – whose job it is to hear requests for exceptions to the zoning code in unincorporated areas of Hamilton County – are rare, according to James Noyes, the county’s development services facilitator. His job is to help applicants through the development process.

The 33 acres are part of a larger 165-acre plot of land in the Harrison Commerce Park. It’s governed by a Joint Economic Development District that allows a township, which isn’t permitted to collect income tax, to partner with a city to do it. They then share the money that’s generated.

This particular district has a requirement that all proposed development must be approved by the Rural Zoning Commission.

In 2000, the township and city hoped to lure a Gap distribution center to there.

Hamilton County taxpayers spent millions on infrastructure improvements to the Simonson Road site. That deal to bring in the distribution center fell apart, and since then other smaller businesses have moved into the commerce park.

But, still 94 acres remain undeveloped, Noyes said.

'Under-utilization ... of prime land'

This year, the Jehovah’s Witnesses group pitched the assembly hall idea. Plans obtained from Hamilton County show the group would use the area 48 weekends a year, drawing membership locally and from Indianapolis, Lexington and West Virginia.

The Witnesses made their case to the Rural Zoning Commission on April 19. The commissioners voted 3-1 to deny the group’s request. The reasons: it’s not consistent with the intention of the original land use agreement, which is for light industrial development; and it would have an adverse impact on neighboring property owners.

Harrison Mayor Joel F. McGuire wrote to Hamilton County Commissioners and Rural Zoning Commission members with these arguments:

• The meeting center would be closed during the week.

• It wouldn’t produce property tax revenue because it’s a religious organization.

• It would not produce income tax revenue because the plan calls for only two permanent employees.

“This proposal is completely inconsistent with the purpose and intent of the Harrison Commerce Center and would be a gross under-utilization of a prime industrial and commercial site that Hamilton County and Harrison have invested in and are relying on to meet their economic development goals,” McGuire wrote.

Other commerce center businesses said they were “vehemently opposed” to the meeting center, citing traffic issues.

“Once you start granting exceptions it is often impossible to stop,” wrote Jim Frondorf, president of Fresh Sausage Specialists, which is located in the commerce park.

Added McGuire: “Our opposition ... has nothing to do with the religious beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witness organization. If they were relocating their international headquarters and building a commercial office complex, we would support them. If they were building a medical center, we would support them.

“However, they are proposing a predominantly empty meeting center that is inconsistent with the purpose of this industrial and commercial site and would not produce the quality jobs and tax revenue that prompted the City of Harrison and Hamilton County to invest heavily in this location,” McGuire said.

McGuire told The Enquirer the group was shown other possible sites in the township, which the group rejected.

So is Harrison Township violating the religious rights of the Jehovah’s Witnesses group? Two experts contacted by The Enquirer disagreed.

Constitutional rights lawyer Scott Greenwood, who also serves on the board of the Ohio and National ACLU said, “at first blush I would say the church has a very strong case.

“For governments to say no to a land use, they would have to have a extremely compelling reason to do so. The fact that it’s zoned for economic development isn’t likely to be enough.”

The act was passed by Congress specifically to address discriminatory treatment by local governments against religious denominations. Federal law takes precedence over local zoning laws, Greenwood said.

Alan Weinstein, an associate professor and director of the Law and Public Policy Program at Cleveland State University, said he doesn’t see a violation.

“In general, what violates the statute is if the government imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of the entity claiming the violation,” he said.

Because the township gave the group another possible location, it may not have violated the federal law. Harrison is within its rights to seek businesses for the industrial park.

“The local government cannot infringe unlawfully on religious organization, but that does not mean every time a religious institution finds a piece of land they think is a good deal for them, that the government has to say, ‘We’ll let you do it,’” Weinstein said.


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That is so stupid that they want to deny the witnesses the building. If they actually used their pea sized brain, the would realize a number of things.

For this I will use the example of 5,000 in attendance.

52 weeks a year - 3 weekends for DC = 49 avail weekends. We will round it down to 40 to cushion the figures a little. 40/2 = 20 Special Day Assemblies (basically 40 days total), and 20 Circuit Assemblies.

Local restaurants will boost their sales. Avg cost per person is about $10, that is main entree and drink. $50,000 per Special day assembly, or $100,000 per circtuit assembly. Avg SAD per year roughly 40. 40 * $50,000 = $2,000,000. 20 Circuit Assemblies = $2,000,000 a year. So just the restaurant business could generate an additional $4,000,000 a year. I understand that not everyone eats out, but this is something they have to look at. They have to look at the potential. Even if the figures is 50% of that, that's still $2 million.

Okay, hotels. This is where it gets a bit tricky, but we are going to look at potential. Average of 4 person per room, per night. That is 1,250 rooms per night being used. Avg room is between $60-$100 per night. $75,000 - $125,000 per night! Multiply that by 80!!! $6,000,000 - $10,000,000 per year!!!!

So altogether, that area has the potential to make anywhere from $13 million - $14 million per year in tourism revenue! That FAR exceeds the tax they would "make" off of Jehovah's Witnesses there. Hopefully that all made sense.

What is your opinions? Oh and that don't include other areas where they would make some good $$$, gas stations, movies, stores, etc...

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That's what I was thinking too. It would have to be more than they are getting now with the area, for the most part, vacant.

This is actually our proposed new assembly hall. I'll be interested to see what happens tomorrow. Since I've been in the truth

Our assembly hall has always been right here in our city. It will be different to travel for our special and circuit assemblies.

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When I lived in London, OH, I only had to go to my KH for our SAD and CA. Our assembly hall was in the same parking lot as our KH. Last I heard, someone told me they are selling it all. Not sure why though.

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The intent is to sell the London Assembly Hall and the Assembly Hall in Indianapolis. They're going to build an Assembly Hall in western Cincinnati or eastern Indiana to take care of all of the congregations that are assigned to London and Indianapolis. The London Assembly Hall is very small and needs remodeling. They felt that it would be more beneficial to sell the land and build a larger Assembly Hall in sourthern Ohio. For our circuit, we have to use three weekends to hold our assemblies. The Hall won't fit our entire circuit. With this new plan, we'll be able to have one assembly for our entire circuit. This is probably the same for most of the circuits assigned to London. I'm not sure about Indianapolis. I know that there are issues with selling the London Assembly Hall because a brother donated the land. We'll see how all of that shakes out.

If you think about it, please pray about the meeting today. We've been searching for land for over a year now.

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I ran across the story here as well. [url=http://www.local12.com/news/local/story/Debate-Over-Plans-For-Jehovahs-Witness-Hall-in/cY-HI1X3fUqWhw2dbtB8TQ.cspx]

Debate Over Plans For Jehovah's Witness Hall in Harrison

A proposed religious facility is drawing opposition .... but the group says it will be a positive for the community. It's now up to Hamilton County Commissioners whether to okay a big assembly hall for the Jehovah's Witnesses in an office and industrial park which does not want the church to be there.

The county's rural zoning commission recently said "no" to the Jehovah's Witnesses' proposal. The group appealed that to the commissioners today. Local 12 News reporter Jeff Hirsh visited the site in Harrison Township today.

About a decade ago, the site was supposed to become home to a warehouse for the gap ... but that fell through. Now, however, there's another gap ... a gap between those who want the Jehovah's Witnesses hall there ... and those who do not.

At the Harrison Commerce Center, the plan which is not going over well with existing tenants. "One of the entrances will be south of our building and the other will be just east of our lot. It will completely surround this particular building."

The Southwest Ohio Assembly of Jehovahs Witnesses wants to build a huge assembly hall in the office park. But Matt Euson of 3S Fire Protection Services objects. "We only have 77 parking spaces and they want 2200. Our building is just over 20,000 square feet, and just one of their buildings is going to be over 87,000 square feet, so it doesn't fit the industrial park model at all, it doesn't fit the other businesses or the other buildings that are here."

Critics say the issue has nothing to do with Jehovah's Witnesses. They say they'd be opposed to a religious facility here whether it was a church, a mosque, or a synagogue because none of those places is what this place was supposed to be - an industrial park which brings in jobs and taxes.

But Jehovah's Witnesses see things differently. Says the group's attorney, Chris Finney, "There's been a lot of statements about how this isn't going to generate any tax dollars or jobs and that's just untrue. Let me help you with the vision of what this is."

While the assembly hall would be build by volunteers, Finney said more than 7-million dollars worth of construction supplies will be needed. And, twice a year, he says, thousands of Jehovah's Witnesses will come to town for meetings, spending money in hotels and restaurants. "And the cool thing is those hotel nights are primarily on Friday and Saturday nights when the hotels are empty because their customers are businessmen who come in during the week."

If the county commissioners say no, the Jehovah's Witnesses group may try to trump that with a federal law which they say prevents unfair treatment of religious organizations. So this could end up in court.

Commissioners are expected to vote in two weeks whether to allow the assembly hall to be built.


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  • 3 months later...


Breaking News: County Commissioners overturn zoning decision on Jehovah Witnesses assembly hall

Hamilton County commissioners Wednesday, Nov. 14, overturned a decision by the county rural zoning commission that paves the way for the Jehovah Witnesses to build an assembly hall and church in the Harrison Township / Harrison Joint Economic Development District.

A unanimous vote was required to overturn the rural zoning board's decision this past summer which said that the church and assembly hall were not suited for the commercial/industrial park.

Township attorney, William Keating, argued that JED state law “trumped” local zoning laws. Commissioners rejected that argument.

More than 50 members of the Jehovah Witness organization waited in a nearby conference room for the decision.

Philip King, legal counsel for the Jehovah Witnesses, said the organization will be a good neighbor and will provide economic benefits to Harrison and nearby communities. He said the thousands of church members who will attend assemblies throughout the year will spend money at local restaurants, gas stations, and other retailers.

Look for updated story later today.

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