Opinion

COLUMN: Evolution of church lots

The possible redevelopment of First United Church in White Rock may be a template for redevelopment of other under-utilized properties in Surrey and White Rock.

A proposal that the White Rock congregation is studying would see the existing church demolished and replaced by multi-family housing, which would include a small church facility.

The congregation has fewer members than it once did and the church facility, built about 60 years ago, is more spacious than currently needed.

In addition, it sits on a prime piece of property near White Rock City Hall, and there would be no shortage of buyers or tenants if it was replaced by a residential development.

Some members of the congregation do not like the idea, and some community members also have concerns. First United is a gathering place for the community and there is no other facility of its type in White Rock, although there are plenty of good-sized churches in South Surrey.

The smaller Christian Science Church, located nearby, has already been taken over by the city.

In some areas of Surrey, churches are sitting on prime pieces of real estate, and are property-rich and cash-poor. This is despite the fact that they do not pay property taxes for worship facilities.

Many mainline Protestant congregations, in particular, have diminishing congregations and face a host of fixed charges. These include maintenance, which can be a costly item in an older building.

I’m aware of numerous churches that have already run into this problem in Surrey.

Two, North Surrey United Church and Fleetwood United Church, have been sold to other churches.

The United Church also operated Camp Kwomais at Ocean Park for almost 100 years, and several years ago sold the property to Surrey. It has since become a wonderful park, and it is most fortunate that the property remains accessible to the public. It could just as easily have been developed for large homes, and few members of the public would then get to enjoy the views available there.

This situation also applies to community halls. The former Green Timbers Community Hall, which sat on a prime piece of property on 88 Avenue, was sold and the property was taken over by a Sikh temple society.

Other community halls often sit on larger pieces of property, yet have few volunteers to maintain them.

While some have been taken over by the city, such as the Elgin Hall, others face a more uncertain future.

Churches rarely get much credit these days for the role they play in society, but they often directly or indirectly are involved in a host of social programs.

Surrey Food Bank, for example, was established by members of several churches. The founding meetings were held at North Surrey United Church, and numerous churches and their members continue to play a key role in keeping the food bank operating.

A number of other programs have also been started or continue with the active support of churches. Sometimes they take place on church property, and sometimes they take place elsewhere.

This is one reason why churches get property tax exemptions – they are considered to be agencies that benefit the community.

Many people in today’s society have little interest in religion, and that is their right. At the same time, indifference to the plight of churches with larger properties and declining memberships may mean that both the physical look of the community (with a possible replacement of larger churches), and the charitable activities of church members, change drastically in the next 10 years. This will be particularly true if property vaues remain as high as they are at present.

The direction taken by First United Church is one worth paying attention to, as it may be indicative of the future.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

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