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Why Some Churches Can’t Sell Their Properties Even to Interested Buyers

In 2018, The Atlantic published an article by Jonathan Merritt entitled “America’s Epidemic of Empty Churches.” The article reported that 6,000 to 10,000 churches die each year, leaving thousands of vacant properties in their wake. This number has almost certainly risen since 2018 as a result of the ongoing collapse of several mainline denominations and the pandemic of 2020.

While some churches struggle to find interested buyers, many others are finding it hard to sell for another reason—zoning.

Take the recent matter involving the Presbyterian Church in Riverton, Wyoming for example. The Church has been trying to sell its property for four years and found a mental health organization interested in buying the property. However, before a deal could move forward, the City determined that the mental health organization could not use the property for behavioral counseling services without a zoning change. Somehow a property that was likely used for religious counseling over the years needed to be rezoned to host behavioral counseling. Such is the hyper-regulatory state of modern zoning in communities across the country.

When the Church sought the zoning change and appeared to be on its way to approval, some in the community objected. Due to the number of objections filed, the Church needed a super-majority vote from the City Council. But the Church fell just short. Only 4 of the 7 City Council members voted in favor of the zoning change—one vote shy.

As a result, the mental health organization now has to look elsewhere. And the Church has to look for yet another buyer—which may very well take another four years.

It turns out some in Riverton prefer to have another unused church building in town and to keep this congregation saddled with the cost of maintaining the property. In these situations, it is not uncommon for neighbors to oppose any new use or adaptive reuse of an empty church property. Empty churches are quiet. And their facades often add to the aesthetic of a neighborhood. Neighbors often feel entitled to the status quo and will come out of the woodwork to prevent any change to church properties.

Couple a strong NIMBY (Not-In-My-Backyard) sentiment with the desire of many government officials to micromanage land uses, and you’ll end up, like the Riverton church, in what seems like a hopeless situation.

At Dalton & Tomich, we help churches and those interested in acquiring church properties navigate and overcome the zoning and land use hurdles that stand in their way. If you are running into such hurdles, please give us a call.

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