City Tells Tower Theatre to Stop Church Services Now Over COVID Rules and Zoning
The city of Fresno is ordering the current owners of the Tower Theatre to prevent Adventure Church from holding indoor services.
This is an addition to a memo from Fresno’s new city manager indicating that the church — which is in escrow to purchase the theater — would need to obtain a zoning change to hold services at the iconic venue in the future.
Since the news broke this week about the theater’s sale, many in the community have expressed concern that not only a house of worship could soon take over, but the effect it may have on other Tower District businesses. Generally, city regulations prohibit the sale of alcohol and legal cannabis in close proximity to a church.
GV Wire℠ has been able to confirm that the sale of the Tower Theatre to Adventure Church is expected to close at the end of January.
The church says it plans to continue holding worship services as well as continue using the theater as an entertainment destination.
According to Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria’s office, there have been nearly 150 voice mails and emails concerned about the purchase. Soria will meet with the theater owner next week.
A virtual community meeting on the Tower’s future is scheduled for 5 p.m. Friday. Attendance is limited to 500 people.
Join this zoom community event tomorrow, January 8th at 5 PM to learn more about a church potentially purchasing the Tower Theater. https://t.co/WQezU6tQSW
— Annalisa Perea (@AnnalisaPerea) January 7, 2021
A flyer from commercial real estate broker KW Commercial states the purchase includes the theater and other buildings on the block, including some restaurants.
City: Theater Must Cease Indoor Operations
On Tuesday, Fresno’s code enforcement department sent a letter to Laurence Abbate — owner of the Tower Theatre — notifying him of a possible violation for allowing Adventure Church to hold services indoors.
The letter states such actions violate state and local stay-at-home orders. It also states a similar letter was sent to the church on Dec. 31.
“Nevertheless, it has again been reported, Adventure Church continues to violate the Emergency Orders by hosting large indoor gatherings,” the letter says.
The letter says the theater “must cease indoor operations immediately. Continued violations may subject you to summary closure, criminal prosecution, revocation of your business license, and/or conditional use permit, fines, and other legal actions.”
Abbate, whose family has owned the theater for decades, said he was not ready to make a comment.
The church has been holding services at the Tower Theatre in one form or another for years. They post an archive on their YouTube page.
City: Zoning Changes Needed
Responding to a letter from the church last month, Fresno’s new City Manager Tommy Esqueda said the city’s development code only allows for church services without a zoning change if the space is less than 2,000 square feet.
The theater portion of the Tower property is at least 15,000 square feet, according to documents. The area is zoned as Commercial Main Street.
“Community and Religious Assembly is not permitted as a principal use for the subject property,” Esqueda wrote.
Esqueda referred to several sections of the Fresno municipal code dealing with religious uses and sections referring to cinemas/theaters and commercial districts.
For Adventure Church to hold services, a land-use change and conditional-use permit are required, Esqueda wrote.
A Dec. 10 response from the city’s planning department initially said that the church was permitted to hold services as an incidental use. Esqueda’s letter provided a “revised” determination.
Church Plans to Continue Non-Church Operations
The church sent a letter to the city on Dec. 7 seeking clarification about uses for the Tower Theatre.
“The purpose of this letter is to state the intent of the use and operations of the property. Adventure Church Inc. will utilize the theater to operate various types of events ranging from concerts, theatre and performing arts shows, city events, community functions, etc.” wrote Pastor Anthony Flores and church board member Bill Richardson.
The church would still schedule weekly Sunday services, with occasional other activities.
“Events are 100% the primary function of the theater, with church services being incidental,” the letter said. The goal is to hold 100 non-church events a year.
Attorney: Church Has Right to Be There
An attorney for the Center for American Liberty, a civil rights group, says the law protects a religious institution’s right to assemble, despite zoning laws.
“The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 protects churches and other houses of worship from discriminatory zoning codes. If a city’s zoning code permits a building to be used for secular assembly, it must also allow it for religious assembly,” said Mark Trammell, executive director and general counsel of the Center for American Liberty. “The law requires neutrality and equality. The government cannot discriminate against a church if zoning permits property to be used as a theater, meeting hall, or other place where people gather for secular purposes.”
It is not clear that if a church holds services whether other existing nearby businesses would be restricted in their activities normally prohibited around houses of worship.