BROOKSVILLE - About 35 members of Crosspoint Church urged Hernando leaders this week to approve a special use exception permit to build a permanent facility near the airport.
County staff had recommended denial of the church's request. The airport manager was not in favor. The county's Office of Business Development said allowing a church to be built so close to the airport would interfere with its mission to attract industry.
But after 90 minutes of testimony at Wednesday's planning and zoning meeting, including impassioned pleas from some parishioners, commissioners voted unanimously to go against the recommendation of their own staff members and approve Crosspoint's permit request for an industrially zoned parcel.
The decision paves the way for the 1,000-member congregation to develop a 16-acre parcel at the northeast corner of Corporate Boulevard and Anderson Snow Road, next to the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport.
Board members said they could not find any valid reason for rejecting the request on a piece of property that has sat vacant for 33 years and shows no signs of being developed. They also believed that a church can co-exist with other developed properties in that immediate area, which includes a sports bar, two department stores, a Veterans of Foreign Wars post, a park and a cemetery.
The crowd erupted into cheers when the vote was made and the church members filed out of the chambers with wide smiles.
That included the church's pastor, Rev. Paul Castelli, who told planning and zoning commissioners during the meeting that the explosion of growth in Hernando County is bringing more people to the area and there must be a place to meet their spiritual needs.
Crosspoint Church, he said, started with 12 people in his living room seven years ago and now holds Sunday services at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics on Powell Road.
The congregation has mushroomed in size, to the point where a permanent structure is needed, he said. The Anderson Snow parcel suits the congregation because, as had been pointed out, 70 percent of the congregation lives within a 2.5-mile radius of the site.
"I want to be where God wants me to be," Castelli said.
The county's Office of Business Development sent a memo to planning and zoning staffers that establishing a church in that industrially zoned spot might affect the county's mission of "creating meaningful jobs and investment in the county through recruitment, retention and expansion of targeted industries."
Attorney Darryl Johnston, representing Crosspoint Church, ticked off a litany of reasons why the county staff's objections to the special exception made no sense.
"If it's an effort to stop teaching the Bible and the word of God in Hernando County, I want to know that," Johnston said.
But Assistant County Administrator for Planning & Development Ron Pianta said this was all about the location of the church, compatibility with the county's comprehensive plan for growth and concerns from other departments who reviewed the request.
"This is not a personal objective," Pianta said. "This is not an attack on the church."
Several Crosspoint members spoke during the meeting, including Cheryl Daniels, who said if the county was concerned about keeping the industrial nature of the area intact, then the church could be called a "factory for God."
Planning commissioner Robert Widmar said it is rare that the board overturns a staff recommendation but it does happen, as in this case.
Widmar said Crosspoint Church would likely be a "tremendous, positive impact on the community."
The proposed church site is in what is called the airport planned development district and church officials needed a special exception use permit for a religious establishment to build a 50,000-square-foot building with a 1,600-seat sanctuary.
Perhaps seven to 15 years down the road, there might be a possibility of expanding with an on-site day care, home school groups and even an elementary school.
Castelli said the goal is to develop the land in 2016 to hold worship services on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings.
"We have to do what's best for the county and its residents," said planning and zoning board Chairman Thomas Comunale.