Selecting the right site for your church
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
The church steering committee has many important tasks early in the planning process for a new facility. After selection of the architect, the contractor and the construction delivery method, one of the next big decisions will often involve property acquisition.
It is risky for a church to purchase land before hiring an architect. An architect experienced with church facility design will help the church avoid serious misjudgments in property selection.
There are three situations creating the need for new property. One is when a newly formed church is ready to move out of temporary facilities and purchase land for their first building. The second is when a church has decided to relocate or build a second campus. The third is when an established church needs to build an addition but requires additional adjacent property to accommodate the expansion.
In each situation, the church must carefully consider many factors as it begins the process of finding and purchasing a piece of property. Using these recommendations as a guide, a church should develop its own site selection criteria. Each church's site selection criteria will depend on their particular situation.
Real Estate Agent and Architect
Select a qualified commercial real estate agent to help you learn what property is available. The agent will need to know the approximate size property and the general location. The real estate agent will know local land values and will find prospective sites that meet your specific criteria.
If considering land adjacent to your existing church property, it is better to have your realtor contact the property owner to discuss the purchase. Otherwise, the price of that property may suddenly exceed actual market value.
A church looking at property should also rely on the services of an experienced architect. The architect will provide advice on how much of each site can be developed and what facility size and capacity could be placed on that property.
The architect will investigate each property under consideration to see if it meets the criteria you have decided are most important. Most of the same site selection criteria apply when an established church is considering purchasing adjacent property.
When investigating different sites, it will be helpful to determine the actual dollar value of the usable area of the property. Take the total land area of the site and subtract the total area of setbacks, buffers, easements, road improvements, floodplains, steep slopes and any other zoning or land use restrictions to the site.
All of these factors can add up quickly to reduce the amount of usable property. What remains is the usable area of the site. There are 43,560 square feet in an acre. Use the calculated usable area to determine the effective cost per acre.
To compare different sites, it is vital to be able to compare the true value of each site being investigated. A church may be considering purchase of 15 acres. They may believe they will obtain it for a bargain price since it appears to be half the market value of similar land in that neighborhood.
Then upon further investigation, it may be discovered that the property has only five usable acres of land because so much of the site is unbuildable. With five useable acres and 10 acres of worthless land, the church would have paid 150 percent of the market value for the usable area of the property.
At one time churches could be built in almost any zoning. But many localities now require special use permits or conditional use rezoning for churches. Find out the current zoning and if a church is permitted in the current zoning. If not, what are the requirements for rezoning? Is there possible local opposition to rezoning for churches?
Check for required acceleration or deceleration lanes, sidewalks or other required public right-of-way improvements. Check on required buffers next to adjacent residential property, as well as setbacks and other zoning restrictions. A buffer is a strip of land adjacent to the property line that must be landscaped or left completely natural. A set back is the minimum distance that a building can be located from the property line.
Other typical restrictions include building height limits, building use restrictions and architectural controls for building façade materials. A location with high impact fees, lengthy rezoning requirements or restrictive local ordinances can make development and building more expensive and time consuming. You may need the services of a real estate attorney if rezoning or special use permits are necessary.
Is the site above or below the street? It is usually better if a church building is at or above street level, especially on sites with fewer than 10 acres. It is not as critical on larger sites, but being below the road will mean less visibility.
Is the site flat or hilly? Parking requires a large relatively flat area. If the site has too much slope, then a large volume of earth must be moved. Steep, difficult terrain can be very expensive to develop. This cost must be considered as part of the actual cost of the land. When comparing the cost of relatively flat property and hilly property, the higher cost of grading the hilly property must be taken into consideration.
Is any of the land in a federal wetland or flood plain? Typically, this land cannot be disturbed at all. A property topographic survey will normally show this information, and it is also available on publicly available flood plain maps. Flood plains and wetlands almost always reduce usable acreage.
Site shape can effectively reduce the usable acreage. Triangular or odd-shaped sites usually have less usable area than square to rectangular sites of the same acreage.
For example, a normal rectangular 20-acre square site may have 18 acres of usable land after accounting for restrictions and site features. However, a 20-acre site with relatively long road frontage, normal setbacks, normal buffers with an odd shape may result in less than 15 usable acres.
Some sites will require expensive utility infrastructure improvements. In most localities, the cost of these improvements will be borne by the property developer. Always verify the availability of electricity, natural gas and telephone or cable. Then find out if public water and sewer are available to the site.
If not, how close are they to the site? What size is the water main, and is it adequate to serve the property? If water and sewer utilities are located at some distance or even on the opposite side of the road, the church will likely have to bear the cost of extending utility lines, boring under the road or cutting existing pavement. Find out how much this is going to cost.
Is there adequate water pressure to serve a new church building or will a larger water main have to be constructed? Most church buildings are required by code to have an automatic fire sprinkler system. Adequate water pressure is critical to the proper operation of a sprinkler system. Without adequate pressure, an expensive holding tank or pump system may be required.
Is the nearest fire hydrant within the required maximum distance to all points on the exterior of your proposed building (distance measured as the truck drives)? If not, then the church will pay for a water main to be constructed into the site.
If sewer is unavailable, is a septic system feasible? Is the soil suitable for a septic drain field? Your architect can bring in an experienced civil engineer to help find the answers to these questions.
Will storm water retention be a problem? Retention ponds are required for almost every site. Will the location of storm water retention areas hurt the appearance of the site? How much land area will be required? If expensive underground storm water structures are required, how much will they cost? The architect and the civil engineer can provide preliminary assessments of each site’s storm water requirements.
Does the site have hidden rock or poor soil conditions? Was the site filled to bring it to its current level? Poor subsurface conditions can significantly increase the cost of construction. Removal of rock or bad soil is an expensive undertaking.
It is always advisable to have subsurface investigations made by a geotechnical engineering company before purchasing property. Your architect can help you select a geotechnical engineer to conduct subsurface investigations. Investing a few thousand dollars before purchasing the property may reveal conditions that could add significant construction costs when you build.
In some parts of the country, poor soil conditions are common. In these situations, it will be better to select the site with the fewest subsurface problems or a site where foundation costs will be manageable.
Visibility and Access
The “message” of your facility will be influenced by its visibility and ease of access. A church that is not visible or accessible sends the message that it is not really part of the community.
Is the site on a major road where your church building will be seen? If the land slopes away from the street, your building may not be visible. Sites level with the street or above the street usually permit your facilities to be seen. It is generally believed that if a church building is visible, the church will usually grow more quickly. If the building can’t be seen, how will anyone know it is there?
If your church is looking for a large tract of land with intentions of growing into a large church, then easy road access will be very important and may be a requirement of local zoning law. Larger churches that believe they will have regional appeal should consider property that will be accessible from an interstate or other high capacity highway. Visibility and access are important in church site selection.
How large can your church grow on this property? The rule of thumb is that you can accommodate about 100 people at a time per useable acre. Sites with 15 acres or more may be able to accommodate 125 people per usable acre. The parking needs of most churches are on the order of one parking place for every two adults in attendance. An ideal flat site of the right dimensions can accommodate about 100 parking spaces per acre.
If simultaneous events are to take place, such as simultaneous worship services and Sunday school, parking should be in the range of 2 to 2.3 persons per parking space for the total attendance at all concurrent events. If multiple worship and Bible Study events are to be scheduled with only short breaks in between, significantly more parking will be required because attendees often arrive early and stay late, resulting in overlapping parking requirements.
A site with five useable acres of land should be able to accommodate up to 500 in attendance. A site with 10 usable acres should easily accommodate 1,000 attendees. Twenty usable acres may be able to accommodate 2,500 attendees. Recreational land is not included in usable land area for this calculation.
Zoning laws in many communities require a five-acre minimum site area for a church, but this varies greatly. In dense urban areas, with offsite parking or public transit, each site will require careful analysis by design professionals.
If you expect your church to grow on the new site, you must have enough property to accommodate the growth you anticipate. Additional adjacent property may not be available for purchase in the future.
Competition and Local Culture
Are other churches already in the neighborhood? If they are similar to your church in theology and style of worship, will their programs or facilities overshadow your own? Will your church have something to offer that other nearby churches do not have? If an existing neighborhood church is relatively traditional, perhaps even liturgical and formal, is your church willing to offer a more contemporary and informal alternative to the community?
The building architecture and site should reflect the standards of the people that live nearby. Can your church afford to build to meet locally expected curb appeal? Otherwise, the “message” the building sends may appear uninviting to some in the community. On the other hand, a much nicer or grander facility than is warranted by the local culture may also turn people off and discourage them from visiting your church.
Consider an Existing Facility
One option many churches fail to consider is the possibility of purchasing an existing building. This option may be the only option in built-up urban areas where land is scarce. In some areas vacant church facilities are available for sale, many of which are move-in ready.
Vacant commercial buildings are for sale in many communities, sometimes for prices much less than the cost of building a new facility. These properties may have most of the utilities and storm water control structures already in place, as well as plenty of parking and good visibility.
A creative architect will be able to transform a former big box store or industrial building into an attractive and functional church facility for a fraction of the cost of a new building. Repurposing existing buildings should never be ruled out.
Once you have a site that really looks promising, have your architect prepare a site feasibility study. This will consist of a written evaluation of the criteria outlined as important to your church. It will also include a rough conceptual site master plan showing how the property might be developed in phases over a period of time.
A site master plan should indicate the site capacity and growth potential, taking into account all zoning and other government restrictions. Such a feasibility study may need to be kept confidential if the current property owner is not yet aware that the property is seriously being considered. Confidentiality is very critical if an established church is considering purchasing property adjacent to its existing location.
Is the surrounding community a growing residential area? Will it continue to grow? A community transitioning from residential to office or industrial may no longer support continued residential growth. Are the culture and demographics of the community similar to those of your existing congregation? If not, will your church be able to attract people from different racial, ethnic or cultural groups?
Is the site located near the geographic center of the congregation or will your current members have to travel longer distances to attend church?Are there other negative factors in the immediate area, such as a landfill or wastewater treatment plant?
Have both prayer and careful investigation been part of the selection process? Is the site in a location to which you feel directed by the Holy Spirit? Does the vast majority of the congregation support the proposed location?
Have the original selection criteria been met to everyone’s satisfaction? Does the feasibility site plan clearly indicate the property will work and provide room for growth? These are questions you must ask yourself and your members.
Secure an Option to Purchase
Most commercial developers seldom purchase property until they are ready to build. There are ways to obtain the right to purchase, without actually proceeding to complete the purchase. Some churches purchase land, only to end up holding the land for many years before being ready to build.
A real estate attorney can help place an option on a property that will hold it until the church is ready to build. The cost of the option will provide the time to raise funds for building and provide an easy way out, if a better piece of property becomes available or the church is delayed by an economic downturn or other unforeseen events.
Thoroughly investigate property before purchasing it. Hire an architect and a real estate professional to evaluate the property. Determine the actual usable land area to calculate the cost per usable acre and the site’s ultimate capacity. Investigate whether this site is expensive to develop because of difficult topography, poor subsurface conditions, lack of sanitary sewer or inadequate water supply.
Is the neighborhood right for your church? Have your architect prepare a site feasibility study and a conceptual site master plan. Can your church grow on this particular property? Purchase of land is a significant long term investment. Be sure it is the right property and will meet the church’s long term needs.