Saying they felt better informed at their June 15 meeting, members of the Oro Valley Town Council reversed their earlier decision to set lower height restrictions on St. Mark Catholic Church.

The council voted unanimously to accept the church’s expansion plans, which included buildings varying in height between 15 and 35 feet and a 45-foot tall tower on the sanctuary.

The church is looking to expand in order to accommodate its growing congregation, which currently numbers more than 800 families.

During the May 4 council meeting, Councilman Steve Solomon led the discussions, saying that the church’s rezoning request to expand facilities with heights of 35 feet and 45 feet was asking too much.

Neighbors of the church property, located at 2727 W. Tangerine Road, have protested the expanded heights, saying the building heights would not be in keeping with the rural setting and would obstruct views.

The council approved a compromise during the May 4 meeting, setting height limitations at 28 feet. Prior to the council vote, zoning allowed a building height of 18 feet.

With more time and research, the council voted to reconsider the issue on May 18, which also requires the council to host a second public hearing.

During the June 18 public hearing, council members tipped their hands on which way they would be voting before any of the 18 residents signed up to speak could address the issue.

Vice Mayor Mary Snider led the discussion, saying since the first vote she’s had time to go and visit the church property, talk to members, review the plans and become better informed.

After walking the 17-acre property in question, Snider said, “I have no problem with the plan.”

During a slideshow presentation by St. Marks’ project director Mitch Lorenz, Lorenz explained why a limit of 28 feet or lower would not work for church.

“Any height restriction below 35 feet is devastating,” he said. “It destroys the traditional Catholic Church design.”

More specifically, Lorenz said the tall design element is needed for lighting and acoustics.

Solomon commended the presentation, saying the main reason he wanted a 28-foot limit in the original vote was because the “presentation was not up to par.”

Reverend Liam Leahy gave the council a petition signed by 1,343 residents in favor of the church’s plans.

Leahy said about 20 percent of the Oro Valley population is Catholic, and he is excited to be moving forward after 11 years of using a “temporary home.”

In addition to more information from the Catholic Church, council members said they had staff members survey other Oro Valley churches to show that the average height of the religious facilities exceeds 35 feet. 

After several council members showed their votes would be reversed, residents preparing to speak in the public hearing sat in the audience asking if they should even bother.

One of those concerned was Sandy Martinez; she called the council’s May 4 decision fair because it left both sides of the debate unsatisfied.

Many church members addressed their faith and dedication to the church; however, area resident Bill Adler cautioned the council that the issue is not about spirituality but instead about following zoning codes the town has in place.

“I am concerned about the staff’s selective use of the general plan,” he said. “There is a lot in the general plan to preserve the aesthetics and character of the surrounding community.”

Dennis Devenport, who plans to build a home on property near the church, said the spirit of the general plan suggests the building heights should be low.

After accusations that staff ignored certain aspects of zoning codes and the general development plan, Councilman Barry Gillaspie gave them an opportunity to respond.

Principal Planner Chad Daines said he stands by the staff analysis.

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