Church expansion holdup

The lobby of Gateway Community Church in Berkeley County is filled with people waiting their turn to receive food during one of the church's regular distributions.

Moncks Corner -- Gateway Community Church runs one of the largest food banks in Berkeley County, and as economic conditions worsened in 2008, the church saw a huge influx of needy families.

To meet this demand, the church bought property next door, hoping to use an existing mobile home for storage.

But church officials say that county permit hurdles have delayed the program's expansion for months, forcing the church to instead store food in Sunday school classrooms.

"I don't think the county understands the magnitude of the need that's out there," said Gateway's pastor, Dave Boyer. "The church has been harmed by this delay."

County officials disagree that they're putting up unnecessary hurdles. They said they're working with Gateway to sort out the matter, and that they're simply following county and state building codes, which, among other things, ensure that buildings are safe.

"We're going to allow them to expand the food bank, that's not the issue," said Eric Greenway, Berkeley County director of planning and zoning. "But they do have to get the appropriate permits."

Gateway Community Church sits off South Live Oak Drive and calls its food bank Hunger Helpers. Last year, it distributed 180,550 pounds of food to 605 needy families.

Unlike some food banks, which simply provide boxes and bags of food, Hunger Helpers tries to tailor its food distribution to its clients, laying out food on tables so people can select what they need. The process provides a measure of dignity.

"Since they can effectively shop for the food, some people come in with tears in their eyes," Boyer said. It also reduces waste. "If someone doesn't drink coffee, what's the sense of giving them a box with a five-pound can of coffee? And it sure doesn't help a diabetic to give them something with sugar."

In 2008, the church bought an adjoining property with a mobile home. "Our problems began when we called the (county) building inspector," Boyer said.

The inspector told church leaders that because the mobile home was a single-family residence, the church couldn't use it for storage or even Sunday school classes. "They told us we could only rent it out," he said.

Greenway explained that many government entities don't allow manufactured homes to be converted from residential to non-residential uses. "This is something I've had to deal a lot with over the years," he said, referring to people and organizations wanting to use mobile homes for other purposes. "But it's a common (prohibition) in most municipalities."

Boyer said the church decided to sell the mobile home and come up with other storage alternatives. Earlier this year, Hightower Construction donated three metal buildings that were being removed from the Charleston Naval Weapons Station -- perfect for the church's needs, Boyer said. He went back to Berkeley County with the church's plans.

"I remember the inspector kind of chuckled and told me, 'This is going to be a long process,' " Boyer recalled.

Among other things, the county required property surveys, plats, engineering schematics showing how the buildings would handle high winds and schematics for new electrical lines.

By March, Boyer said the church fulfilled what it thought were all of the county's requirements.

Then a new hitch: When the church's licensed electrical contractor supplied the schematics for the electrical permit, county officials said they wouldn't issue one unless the church hired a general contractor. County officials said general contractors are required because the buildings were worth more than $5,000.

Boyer said the valuation didn't make sense to him because the buildings were donated.

During a County Council meeting Monday, he raised several questions: Shouldn't the requirement for a general contractor be based on a project's actual cost, not the county's own valuation? And on a deeper level, shouldn't the county make it easier for nonprofits to do their good deeds?

Boyer contacted Watchdog after a report earlier this month about a gas station builder's frustration with Berkeley County's inspection department. In that case, Mark Jordan paid about $103,000 to build a gas station canopy but was issued a permit fee based on the county's own valuation of $294,000. Jordan questioned why the fee wasn't based on the project's cost. Under pressure, the county issued a fee based on the actual price tag.

Boyer said the church's experience also reminded him of Berkeley County's move to change the tax status of the Steve Vaughn Sports Complex in Crowfield where a small nonprofit runs a baseball program. The county changed the property status from agricultural to commercial, causing the nonprofit's tax bill to rise from about $350 in the mid-1990s to more than $5,700 today.

Boyer said his church doesn't receive any government money or even funds from the United Way. "We're all volunteers."

He wonders why it should take 18 months to expand a program that helps so many people. "I would hope our government would be more compassionate to people in need."

Greenway said his hands were tied: State law requires general contractors to get involved in projects that are valued more than $5,000. "I just don't have any latitude because we are mandated to enforce the state law." Greenway said he appreciates that it will cost the church some money to hire a general contractor. But once that happens, "I can turn that permit around in a day or two."