WILLISTON - Taft Corners is already a Mecca for big-box retailers. Now a local church wants to get in on the oversize action. The Essex Alliance Church hopes to build a new 169,000-square-foot facility off Route 2A, on a 54-acre lot just north of Taft Corners. The two-story building would include an auditorium-sized worship space with room for 1800, as well as a gymnasium, meeting rooms and offices. It would likely be the largest church building in the state - almost 50 percent larger than the neighboring Wal-Mart, which measures 114,000 square feet.
Williston Town Planner Lee Nellis observes, "It's the size of a true Super Wal-Mart."
Church representatives discussed a preliminary sketch of the facility with Williston's Design Review Board at a meeting on November 28. Members of the board expressed serious concerns about the project, which also includes outdoor recreation fields and 611 parking spaces.
But the church's Senior Pastor Scott Slocum is hopeful that things will work out in Williston. "I'm a fairly optimistic person," he says, "but I'm not presumptuous. We've got a process to go through. We've got questions we have to answer. And our hope is we can answer them satisfactorily so the board can say, 'Yes, this is a good thing for the town of Williston.'"
The move would definitely be a good thing for the EAC. The 40-year-old evangelical Protestant congregation, currently headquartered in a 45,000-square-foot space on Old Stage Road in Essex, attracts up to 1200 worshippers on any given Sunday - and hundreds more on Christmas and Easter. Slocum claims those numbers make it the largest congregation in Vermont, though not an official "megachurch;" those giant evangelical Christian churches, which have sprouted up all over the South and Midwest, regularly attract more than 2000 people each week. "We're only a megachurch by Vermont standards," he offers.
Right now, Vermont's largest church can't fit all its worshippers under one roof. The EAC currently offers five separate Sunday services. Three take place in the church's own worship space, which can seat 450; the other two services occur in a theater at the Essex Outlet Cinemas, which holds 300. Attendance is growing. "We have more and more people coming and wanting to come than we can accommodate," Slocum explains. "So we have to do something."
Slocum reports that the church had initially planned to expand at its current location; it even bought additional land across the street in Essex. But the site doesn't have sewer access, and the Essex Selectboard denied the church's request to connect the parcel to the town system.
The church has been searching for a new location for more than a year. "There is not any place in Essex that's suitable," says Slocum. "So we looked at where's the most central place in which to serve people. We already have a good number of folks from Williston. It puts us, if you will, central to access the people."
The church recently struck a deal to buy the Williston land from Allen Brook Investments, pending approval of its plans. The property had previously been approved for a 50-lot subdivision.
But Williston DRB member Scott Rieley says the board is worried about the "size, scale and mass" of the church's proposed facility. "It's a big building," he says. "And all of the buildings around it are significantly smaller - residences, or single and two-story commercial buildings." At the current proposed size, Rieley says, "I can't imagine that the board will approve it."
Rieley adds that several residents who attended the DRB meeting also complained about the increased traffic the church would bring to Route 2A.
The DRB has scheduled another discussion of the project for January 9, at 7:30 p.m. And it issued a set of suggestions for how the church could improve its proposal. These include creating two additional entrances and exits to the property, and dividing the one big building into several smaller ones to form a kind of campus.
Slocum says he wasn't surprised or put off by the board's objections, and that the church is "open to a dialogue about their concerns."
He agrees that the building is a big one, but he points out that its actual footprint is just 95,000 square feet. "You look at it, and you go, 'Holy cow! This is huge!'" he says. "But if you go by the property, drive by the property, there's only a few corridors where it's visible because of the topography of the land."
As for traffic concerns, he suggests, "Our peak time is typically when everybody else is still eating their breakfast and having their coffee."
Slocum claims the church would be an asset to Williston. At the DRB meeting, he distributed a list of services the church provides to the town of Essex. They include hosting police department trainings and local elections. The church even serves as an evacuation site for Essex and Williston schools. "We want to be neighbors in the neighborhood," Slocum says, "not problems in the neighborhood."
Asked if anyone has objected to the religious nature of the petitioning organization, the DRB's Rieley says no. "Nobody's said anything about that," he reports. "Honestly, it seems to be building and traffic."