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Faith in New Church Undiminished

Land use: Cottonwood congregants are joined by others in Cypress who decry the city's condemnation of their parcel for a retail center.


Rhonda Morford emerged from an hour of energized prayer and song in the crowded auditorium of Cottonwood Christian Center on Sunday with a clear vision about the controversy surrounding her church.

"This is good versus evil," she said. "It is black and white. There is no gray here.... Satan is trying to stop our new church from being built."

To Morford and many fellow congregants, Satan has taken the shape of a Cypress City Council vote to condemn 18 acres where Cottonwood plans to build a "megachurch," so a sales-tax-revenue-generating Costco or other retail store can be built there.

But it's not just the 4,000-member congregation and its religious allies who are urging the city to find another place for a new shopping district. A backlash against the City Council is brewing from the very Cypress taxpayers whom the Costco is supposed to benefit with more than $700,000 a year projected in sales tax revenue.

Some say they are embarrassed by the national attention--and ridicule--the city's move to condemn the church-owned land has attracted.

Glenn Racine said it's a constant source of chatter among the customers he sees as an employee of Mervyn's on Valley View Street. "People keep saying this just isn't fair, and they want the City Council voted out," he said. "They think it's flat-out the church's land. There is already a Costco 15 minutes away, for crying out loud."

Melanie Cleveland is hearing the same thing from those who come into the Petco where she works across the street. "I'm talking to a lot of people who say they just don't think it is right," she said.

City officials show no sign of backing down. They claim they are the victims of an orchestrated public-relations campaign intended to mislead residents about the facts of the case.

To City Council members, it is simple: The land has been part of a redevelopment zone since 1990, they say, and Cottonwood was warned before buying a prime parcel at Walker Street and Katella Avenue that a large church was not compatible with the city's vision.

Church officials deny a warning was ever made.

The rhetoric has become heated. A mailing from an Oklahoma group in support of Cottonwood depicted the City Council as mean, greedy and immoral. Hundreds of Cottonwood members have dutifully appeared to picket, chant and pray repeatedly in front of the council chambers.

"It's been a drawn-out battle," said Larry Matteson, a pastor at Cottonwood.

While the church's efforts have swayed some in Cypress, others find the tone of it all quite offensive.

"When someone comes on that strong, it sends a signal to me that I need to take it all with a grain of salt," said Cherie Dickey, 47, of Cypress. "I have strong doubts about the believability of it all."

Still others say they don't know what to think.

"Initially, we felt the property should not be taken away," said Fritz Friederich, 73, who was out grocery shopping with his wife, Nancy. "Now we are just confused."

City officials have produced a letter they sent to the church a few months before the property was purchased in 1999, warning that the property was in a planned business district. But the letter also says the area could be rezoned through an amendment to accommodate a church.

Church leaders promise they will see the struggle through. Cottonwood has outgrown its 36,000-square-foot facility in Los Alamitos; it holds six services a week to accommodate thousands of members. The 700-seat auditorium fills up quickly, and hundreds of congregants must watch weekend services on closed-circuit TV in overflow rooms.

The proposed facility in Cypress is nearly nine times as large as the church's current building and would include an auditorium, gymnasium, classrooms, day-care center and other facilities.

At the church Sunday, congregants were further invigorated by a videotaped statement about the property's condemnation from their leader, Senior Pastor Bayless Conley, who was in Mexico for the weekend. "We need to keep trusting God," he said from the video screen. "Things are going to work out."

That's all many congregants said they needed to hear as they shuffled out of the auditorium, into the jammed parking lot and onto shuttle buses to their vehicles parked at a middle school.

"This is a test of our faith," said Cottonwood member Shirley Taylor, 29. "We will stand together until the end."

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