Editorial: A neighborhood church chooses the better part
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Every Sunday, an average of 1,350 people attend services at Orchard Evangelical Free Church in the leafy Hickory Meadows neighborhood of Arlington Heights. For years, the lot would fill up and about 200 drivers would park on neighborhood streets.
Perhaps surprisingly, that didn't bother residents too much. What did bother them was the church's solution -- to tear down eight houses and expand the parking lot.
Orchard Evangelical is a major suburban house of worship with plans to grow even bigger. In 2010 the congregation added campuses in Barrington and Itasca, and a fourth church will open in Marengo next year.
But you can't draw people to your church if they can't park close enough. Over time, Orchard bought the eight houses on an adjoining street and rented them, waiting for the right time to tear them down and expand the parking lot by 230 spaces.
That time appeared to be at hand in the spring. In May, Orchard told its tenants -- who knew this was coming someday -- they would have to find other places to live.
This caught the attention of the neighborhood, and the uproar began. Homeowners feared for their property values and objected to sacrificing established houses and mature trees for asphalt. Opponents geared up, knowing that once the plan was filed with the village it would be open for discussion at public meetings.
The passionate opposition seemed to catch the church by surprise.
"When we originally drafted plans for the expanded parking lot, we truly believed families living near our church would appreciate having fewer cars on the streets," said Orchard Chairman John Clarkson.
"We were clearly mistaken."
Then, in a move that surprised everybody except those closest to the church, Orchard announced earlier this month it would abandon the parking lot expansion. Instead, it and two nearby public schools entered into a reciprocal agreement to share parking.
We cannot know for sure if the lot expansion would have been allowed by the Arlington Heights village board, but the odds looked good. In the wake of public opposition, some of it vitriolic, Orchard chose to be a good neighbor.
And possibly, church officials saved one of their members a little awkwardness. Arlington Heights Village President Tom Hayes, who attends Orchard, pledged early on to recuse himself from all discussions involving the expansion.
Clarkson says Orchard will concentrate on adding more campuses, not building additions to the Arlington Heights church.
In these times, when "my way or the highway" seems to be the guiding principle in politics, it is refreshing to see an organization abandon years of planning because its decision may harm somebody else.
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