COLUMBIA — Plans have moved forward to turn the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses into a funeral home despite objections that a business will bring added traffic to a quiet neighborhood.
On Jan. 8, the Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission approved a proposal to change the zoning of the property in north Columbia from residential to planned commercial zoning. The Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which houses a parking lot big enough for 47 vehicles, occupies the property at 2207 Holly Ave.
Thomas May, owner of May and Son Funeral Home, plans to purchase the hall and operate a funeral home out of the location if the zoning request passes at the City Council level. The council is scheduled to have a first reading of the proposal Tuesday.
Before the zoning change was approved more than a week ago, Timothy Teddy, director of planning and development, received more than 15 letters from residents who expressed opposition to commercial zoning in their neighborhood.
Residents objected to spot zoning, or commercial zoning, in a residential area, citing Holly Avenue’s lack of a curb and gutteras well as parking issues. The hall already creates heavy traffic in the neighborhood and leads to congestion when congregants park on nearby streets, the letters noted.
Jennifer Briner, who has lived on nearby Andy Drive for more than nine years, said she and her husband are against a business that would create unsafe traffic conditions for children. The Briners have five children, ages 4 to 14.
Neighborhood children ride scooters and bikes and rollerblade on Andy Drive, a dead-end street with no sidewalks, she said.
“I'm worried, because my kids ride their bikes and scooters, that heavy traffic makes it unsafe for them,” she said.
During wedding and funeral services, all held at the hall, Briner said, people sometimes park in front of her mailbox and at the end of the road. This makes it difficult for her to get out of her driveway and get her mail, and the mail carrier will not deliver if her mailbox is blocked by traffic, she said.
Most of the people who come to the hall are from outside the neighborhood, and a funeral home would likely create similar traffic issues, Briner said.
She and her neighbor, Mark Shields, who has lived on Andy Drive for two years, said they would like to see something in the neighborhood to benefit the community, especially children.
Shields, who has teenage children and an infant, said the neighborhood needs a youth organization where kids can go after school.
Shields also resisted the idea of locating a funeral home in the neighborhood.
“I just don’t like the fact that there will be dead people there. It’s spooky,” he said.
The membership has outgrown the building, which has served the congregation since the 1960s. The two Sunday services can draw as many as 100 people, said Jack Miller, a member of the body of elders at the church.
The Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses opened another church on Smiley Lane in 2007, which also draws as many as 100 people, Miller said. The congregation wants to find a building on the south side of Columbia to serve its members, he said.
May, who operates funeral homes in Boonville, Sedalia, Fayette and Marshall, said he has seen an increase in business since Warren Funeral Chapel closed in July. His business grew from four or five customers a year to four or five a month, he said.
This prompted him to look for a location in town, but in order to purchase the church property, he needs planned C-P commercial zoning. Under zoning regulations, churches are zoned R-1 residential, but funeral homes do not fit within this zoning category.
May said he expected traffic to decrease if he operates a funeral home on Holly Avenue because his facilities generally hold funerals of 60 or fewer guests. People planning larger funerals generally want them in churches, May said.
“I think we’re definitely not going to be detrimental to that area,” he said. “I think it will benefit that community and Columbia as a whole.”
Members of the Planning Commission disagreed that a funeral home would be inappropriate for the neighborhood. Commissioner David Brodsky said a funeral home was likely to create less traffic.
Commissioner Jeffrey Barrow said it was unreasonable to expect a buyer to turn the church into a home or another type of residence. The facility, which is 6,500 square feet, is too large to be a conventional house, he said.
The commission also suggested that zoning regulations be changed so funeral homes can fall under office (O-1 or O-P) zoning. An item on the Tuesday budget suggests rezoning existing funeral homes, mortuaries and crematories.
If the council approves May's rezoning request, this would be the second place of worship in the last year to be converted to a funeral home in Columbia. An abandoned church on East Texas and North Garth avenues received commercial zoning in September so it could become a funeral home.