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Battle Over at Last, Cottonwood Christian Center Breaks Ground

After a struggle over zoning vs. religious freedom, construction begins in Cypress.

September 19, 2004|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

Members of Cottonwood Christian Center broke ground Saturday for their new church in Cypress, ending a five-year saga that made national headlines and made the church a symbol of religious rights.

"We are ecstatic that we are able to move forward and put our efforts into actually building our new home and not having to fight any more," said the Rev. Mike Wilson, a Cottonwood pastor.

Wilson and about 1,300 members of the nondenominational church gathered at the site where Cottonwood plans a 3,500-seat sanctuary and other buildings on a 33-acre campus carved out of the former Cypress Golf Club.

The saga began in 1999, when the church bought 18 acres at a different site on Katella Avenue, just east of the golf course. But that property was in a redevelopment zone and the city of Cypress had different plans.

It declined to approve Cottonwood's campus, and later threatened to condemn the property to make room for a Costco store instead. The church sued.

What ensued was a national debate that pitted religious freedom against city redevelopment rights.

Religious leaders from across the country rallied behind Cottonwood, while municipal officials and land-use experts cautioned against exempting religious institutions from local planning ordinances.

State laws generally allow cities to force landowners to sell property in redevelopment zones, but the cities must first show that their intent is to rid the area of blight.

What constitutes blight has not always been clear, and many cases have ended up in court.

In Cottonwood's case, Cypress argued it needed the Costco store: The 150,000-square-foot facility was expected to generate about $1 million annually in tax revenue and be the centerpiece of a 300-acre redevelopment area surrounding Los Alamitos Race Course.

The church said it needed the land because its current 2.4-acre facility in neighboring Los Alamitos was becoming too crowded. Cottonwood, whose evangelical services are broadcast to more than 100 countries, has about 5,000 members, church officials said.

In 2002, a federal judge temporarily halted the city's plans, and the judicial impasse led to a settlement last year.

Cottonwood agreed to sell its site to the city for $18.8 million, a profit of more than $5 million. In exchange, the city approved the church's construction plans on the Cypress golf course site.

The church acquired that site from Ed Allred, owner of the neighboring racetrack. Allred bought the golf course in 2002 with plans to develop it for other uses.

Cottonwood bought 18 acres of the golf course for $17 million and Allred donated 10 more acres. The church also bought five acres of adjacent land from another seller. Allred said he may develop the remaining 64 acres of the golf course into homes, but the process will probably take years. In the meantime, he will keep the land as open space, he said.

Wilson, the Cottonwood pastor, said, "Our lawyers said this was the most complicated land deal their firm had ever done in many years.... It is a relief. It almost doesn't seem real."

But the deal hit another snag this year when Los Alamitos sued to block Cottonwood's move to the new site. The city complained that traffic from the project, on the border between the two cities, would unduly burden its streets.

Cypress officials said a compromise has been reached with Los Alamitos by extending Lexington Drive, which traverses both cities and borders the church project, from Cerritos Avenue to Katella Avenue. Church traffic will also be diverted east and west on Katella to avoid clogging residential streets in Los Alamitos.

The first phase of the construction will include the sanctuary, offices, a youth center and a children's center. The church hopes to move in by spring 2006. The remainder of the construction -- including another sanctuary holding 5,000 -- will depend on fundraising, Wilson said.

Cypress officials said they welcome Cottonwood and that the fight had never been about blocking the church, but about standing for the city's right to redevelop.

"We stood on principles," Mayor Tim Keenan said earlier in the week. "But I tell you this: We will think twice before we take on God next time."

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