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Health Department weighs in on church campground situation

This bathhouse is part of the Solid Rock RV Park that the Tennessee Health Department says is being operated without the required permit by Covenant Life Church in Norris. (photo:G. Chambers Williams III )
Covenant Life Church has been operating “an organized camp” on its property without having the required permit to do so, according to a letter sent to the church’s attorney, Daniel Sanders, on Jan. 5 by the Tennessee Department of Health.

Accordingly, the Health Department has asked the church to provide “additional information” about the “Solid Rock Retreat Camp,” which the church opened more than two years ago without first obtaining the necessary rezoning of the property to accommodate the RV park, or applying for the required building permits.

“To comply with state laws for the operation of an organized camp and to obtain a permit from the department,” the state’s letter said, “you must do the following:

“Please provide a letter from your client or the city or county where the property is located confirming 3compliance with ‘local building and fire codes.’ …

“Please provide a letter from the utility company for the property to show the property accesses city water; and …

“Please provide evidence of all other legal requirements for an organized camp permit, as requested by the Environmental Health program.”

The Health Department gave the church 10 business days to respond to the requests.

In the city of Norris’ own response to the Health Department to a separate letter requesting information on the church’s compliance with city codes and ordinances, the city’s attorney wrote in a “draft” response (still to be approved by the mayor and city manager) that the church has never complied with the city’s zoning or building codes in the construction and operation of the park.

“Repeatedly, the City has invited the Church to engage with the City through the administrative process that, for building and construction approval, requires appropriate zoning, site plan approval, issuance of appropriate permits, including building permits, and ultimate approval through a certificate of occupancy.

“However, the onus is on the Church to comply with City codes, which it has refused to do with regard to the Solid Rock RV Park ….”

Copies of the correspondence were distributed at Monday night’s Norris City Council meeting by Mayor Chris Mitchell, but the issue was not discussed by the council, at the mayor’s request.

Without following the state and city laws and ordinances to obtain permits to operate the camp, the church risks having it shut down by the Health Department, as this statement in the department’s letter to the church suggests:

“Should the church fail to obtain the necessary permit the Department reserves the right to pursue enforcement action for any continued operation without a permit.”

In its draft letter to the Health Department, the city of Norris also noted that deed restrictions in Covenant Life Church’s original 2003 purchase of the land upon which the church building and the camp sit “requires that the property remain zoned in the Professional and civic (P-1) zoning district of the City, which does not allow RV parks as a permitted use …”

Late last year, Covenant Life told the city through the church’s attorney that it “does not intend to apply for a rezoning” of its property to allow for a campground/RV park.

The RV park – which the church recently began referring to as a “retreat,” sits behind and beside the church, which fronts on Andersonville Highway. Entrance to the park is off Norris Freeway, across from Cross Pike Road.

Instead, “The Church (together with its 500+ congregation) intends to rely on state and federal laws that protect the Church from unduly burdensome, unreasonable, or discriminatory zoning or land use regulations,” Knoxville lawyer Sanders wrote to the Norris city attorney in a letter dated Nov. 1.

In that letter, Sanders asserted that the Solid Rock RV Park, which has 16 spaces and its own website where would-be visitors can make reservations, is merely a ministry of the church and does not charge people to stay in the park.

Sanders, in the letter, asserts that “…the Church provides overnight parking and accommodation to congregants, missionaries and others in need as a form of Christian retreat and an exercise of deeply held religious belief. I am informed that no commercial transactions are involved.

“Rather, the Church accepts offerings essential to the maintenance of its facilities on a free-will [sic] basis. Individuals who utilize the overnight parking areas receive prayer and reading of Holy Scripture. They are expected to attend worship services, commune with Church leaders, and participate in other religious programs available on the Church property.”

However, the church’s actual practices, at least until recently, have not seemed to follow those guidelines. No mention was made on the RV park’s website of the optional nature of the camping fees or that campers would be required to participate in the church’s religious activities.

Indeed, several people who have stayed at the campground have reported that they were charged regular camping fees for their RVs, and were never told anything about their fees being optional “donations” to the church, as Covenant Life now contends.