The cottage on the corner of Robb and Poplar streets in Summit doesn’t look like a source of contention, but plans for its future are pitting some residents who live near it against the largest church in town.
Summit First Baptist Church bought the Hurst house at 1109 Robb St. and has plans to add 3,600 square feet to convert it into an office building with parking for some two dozen cars.
Church members said at a meeting of the town planning and zoning commission on Tuesday that land-locked First Baptist, which has seen a surge in membership and now has two services on Sundays, needs room to grow.
But neighbors maintain that the church ignored the pleas of the town historic preservation commission, which warned that the house could wind up in a proposed historic district — a location that comes with restrictions on major external modifications to historic properties.
The town council last week modified a new proposed historic preservation law, removing a six-month moratorium on changes to historic properties until the law takes effect and clearing the way for people whose building plans don’t get approval from the preservation commission to appeal directly to the town council.
Opponents of changes to the Hurst house call that move a potential rubber-stamping of the church’s plans by town officials.
Jim Talbert, who lives across Poplar Street from the house and who spoke on behalf of several nearby residents at Tuesday’s hearing, said the changes overstep a system of checks and balances, “neutering the potential worth of the historic preservation commission.”
The planning and zoning commission will vote next week whether to grant the church a conditional-use permit, which would allow the house to be converted into office space in a residential district, as long as certain terms are met.
The seven-member planning and zoning panel includes two Summit First Baptist members: chairman Paul Smith and commissioner Rusty Covington.
Neighbor Gwen Covington, a cousin of Rusty Covington, wrote a letter to the zoning commission, which Talbert read aloud Tuesday. Covington wrote that the church, which recently removed another house to make way for a parking lot, “seeks an ever-expanding presence at the expense of ill will to its neighbors.”
William and Deborah Price, who live next door to the Hurst house, also wrote a letter. They claim that allowing the addition violates the rights of other property owners, as well as the original historic preservation law and current zoning laws, which they say the zoning commission ignored when it made a recent ruling saying the house meets the requirements for a conditional-use permit.
“If limits are not placed on this church now, the neighborhood will be destroyed,” they wrote.
Talbert, reading from a letter signed by six other households, called the plans a “ruse to convert one of Summit’s most historical cottages into Summit’s largest office complex.”
Talbert said he fears the changes to the house will hurt his own property value and remove potential property tax revenue from tax rolls. He also said the plans stand to make the neighborhood, “less desirable, less safe and less in value.”
But church members say the house’s original owners, longtime Southwest Mississippi Community College supporters and twin sisters Adene and Aylene Hurst, didn’t pay taxes since they were over 65 years of age, so the move would make no change to existing property tax revenues.
Talbert said town officials are shouldering too much support for the church. He asked for a show of hands of Summit residents from the more than 50 church members in attendance Tuesday, and eight indicated they live in town. Others said they own businesses in Summit and shop in town.
Talbert said the church seems to operate under the notion that it’s “larger than the town of Summit and therefore more important than the town of Summit. That’s not true.”
First Baptist member Charlene Newcomb said “this is not about being bigger than Summit. … this is about winning souls for Jesus.”
Talbert, who is minister at McComb Church of Christ, countered that saving souls isn’t the planning commission’s business.
Lifetime church member and town Fire Chief Stan McMorris said plans for the house have thoughtful architectural design, and he believes property owners should be able to make changes to their buildings.
“I see this as a very progressive plan for the church. … I do not see it as a detriment to the neighborhood,” he said.
Church member Ken Johnston said, “There are a lot of other things in the neighborhood that are much more detrimental to the neighborhood than a church office would be,” liquor and convenience stores among them.
Pastor Dr. Larry LeBlanc called for cooler heads. “It was never our goal in any of this to upset any of you,” he said, adding the vision for the house — and the church — is “to be a beacon of light in this town.”
“Everything we want to do we want it to be done with excellence,” LeBlanc said, adding that past work by the church has helped the town.
Plans for the house “will be done with excellence, and it will be done in a way that anyone who drives by will be proud that it’s in their town.”
“This certainly is an improvement,” church member Mike Smith said. “I don’t see how in any way it could be unsafe, in any way it could be ugly.”
Meanwhile, Adene Hurst, who now lives in Madison with her sister, said in a letter to neighbors that fallout over her former address has been upsetting.
The Hursts sent the following letter to their Summit neighbors. It was not read at the hearing, but the Enterprise-Journal obtained a copy this morning.
“It is with much regret and sorrow and pain in my heart that I have caused such distress and turmoil and unhappiness to many citizens near us in our little town of Summit,” she wrote. “… But existing, (or perhaps rumored!) plans for the use of our former property has brought much concern, anxiety, and uncertainty to our neighbors. … That all of this has come about we deeply regret.
“We are willing to buy back the property by paying back the cost plus the amount already paid for preliminary work and the interest you would have gained to date on the amount paid for the property, had it not been withdrawn from your account.
“Our hearts are very heavy and tears keep coming to my eyes as I write this letter, but we earnestly pray that God’s will shall become clear and followed by us all so that His kingdom will increase more and more, and the hearts of all involved and concerned may rejoice and be blessed and that our little town will be strengthened and brought closer to God and to each other.
“Thank you for your careful and earnest consideration of our thoughts and feelings and concern for our neighbors and your church,” Hurst wrote.