published Saturday, July 30th, 2011

Alabama pastor, family can't live in church yet

HARTSELLE, Ala. -- A Hartselle pastor and his family cannot live in the former sanctuary of Bible Baptist Church until the facility is brought up to code, city officials said Wednesday.

"This is tough, but we have told them they have to leave until construction is finished," said Mayor Dwight Tankersley.

Patrick McDonald said he and his family have nowhere to go, but they will comply with the city's decision.

McDonald, his wife and 10 children moved to Hartselle about three months ago. They came from Mexico, where they had worked as missionaries.

"We had no place to live," McDonald said, explaining why the family is living in the church where he serves as pastor.

Jeff Johnson of the city's Department of Development said the family is converting an area of the church approved for assembly to residential.

Johnson had disagreed with residents near the Ironman subdivision church who complained at Tuesday's city council meeting that the family cannot legally live in the church.

By Wednesday, he was backtracking.

"It's an unfortunate situation," Johnson said.

He cited two major issues:

First, a firewall must be constructed between the breezeway and old sanctuary. Also, rooms where the family is residing have no egress.

Johnson inspected the facility Wednesday morning. He took pictures and sent his findings to City Attorney Larry Madison.

He said Madison determined the facility in its current state did not comply with city codes for family occupation.

The property is zoned Business 1, which allows multi-family dwellings, Johnson said.

City leaders said McDonald started renovating the church's old sanctuary into a home for his family before acquiring a building permit.

Hartselle's ordinance gives the city the option of doubling the cost of the building permit or filing misdemeanor charges.

"I just don't want to put a pastor in jail," Council President Kenny Thompson said.

McDonald said he agreed to pay $610 for his building permit, which is double the normal cost.

The pastor said Johnson authorized him to start construction without the permit.

Johnson said he only gave McDonald permission for demolition, which does not require a building permit.

He said he was not aware construction had started until the church called Monday for an inspection.

"We didn't think we were doing anything wrong, but we're going to follow the law," McDonald said.

Thompson said he had received complaints from homeowners in the area about the McDonald family living in the church without a certificate of occupancy.

"If it's not certified for occupancy, they can't live there," Madison said during the council meeting.

Madison said one way to deal with the lack of an occupancy certificate is to write the McDonalds a cease and desist letter, which the city will do.

McDonald said he will comply, but he said churches are used as homes during emergencies.

Councilman Bill Smelser, a deacon at East Highland Baptist Church, raised the same issue during Tuesday's council meeting.

"We've had lock-ins at our church," he said.

Madison said the situations are different because lock-ins are temporary. He also said they usually are not in a construction zone.

McDonald said his family is not residing in the 2,800-square-foot construction zone.

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