By Ann Henson Feltgen, BrowardBulldog.org
For 60 years, the Episcopal Church of the Intercession has provided religious guidance and ministered to the needs of its congregation. Now, plans by the cash-strapped Episcopal diocese to sell the church and its peaceful, four-acre parcel in Fort Lauderdale’s South Middle River neighborhood, is roiling both church members and neighbors.
The Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida has a deal to sell the property and its one-acre community garden to a local developer for $1.3 million, if the city agrees to rezone it to accommodate 60 two-story townhouses.
Parishioners, who have yet to be notified by church higher-ups of the pending sale, and local residents say density is already too high in the neighborhood.
The first public meeting to discuss the proposed rezoning is set for 6:30 p.m., March 19, at Fort Lauderdale City Hall, 100 North Andrews Ave.
Complicating the discussion are the remains of 80 deceased church members who chose to spend eternity at the site by having their ashes interred in the sunset-facing memorial garden.
The Church of the Intercession, located at 507 Northwest 17 Street, once had hundreds of active members, according to parishioner Steve Kanter. Today, those who attend Sunday service have dwindled to about 30.
“They have grown old and died or now lost their faith in the church because of all the turmoil,” said Kanter, who was attracted to the church because of its religious traditions and missions.
The lack of membership caused the diocese about a decade ago to downgrade the church’s status to that of a mission, an entity that by church law can only remain in that status for six years.
The way events have unfolded has sewn distrust.
Kanter said he understands the diocese’s stance. Nevertheless, he is critical of its decision not to notify parishioners that the property was up for sale and of the need to do so.
“I found out in September that the church was on the MLS [Multiple Listing Service] website,” Kanter said. According to MLS records, the property was listed for sale July 15, 2013, but could have been for sale earlier.
“Why in this paradise with God are we having so much trouble,” he continued. “The diocese is up to no good and we don’t like it.”
The Venerable Thomas Bruttell, diocese’s archdeacon for deployment, confirmed in an interview that the property is for sale, the price and that a deal is on the table.
“When the rezoning goes through, the sale will be finalized and, by the end of the year, letters announcing the sale will be sent to the congregation,” he said.
‘TOO MANY CHURCHES, NOT ENOUGH PARISHIONERS’
“We’ve told [the congregation] for the last seven or eight years the same message: If something doesn’t change, we will have to sell the property,” he said. “There are too many churches and not enough parishioners and something has to give.”
Rumors the church was for sale had circulated for months, Kanter said. So late last year his wife emailed Bishop Leo Frade, who heads the diocese, and asked if the church was for sale.
On Dec. 17, 2013 Frade replied. “There are no plans to sell at this time,” he wrote.
Bruttell, who is adamant that the congregation knew the status of the church, speculated that Frade may have said that because he knew it would be a year before the sale could go through.
The diocese has helped support the church financially and brought in new ideas to increase membership, Bruttell said. One of them, he said, was to fight for the city to approve urban farming on the property so the farming efforts could expand. He said the diocese attempted to include the church into a new program combining All Saints and St. Ambrose into the New River Ministry, “but they didn’t step up to that.”
He added that the people who are now complaining “are not emotionally connected for spiritual reasons, it is because of the community garden…These 16 people do not own the church, they are visitors.”
But church member JoAnn Smith disputed that assertion.
“We have not had one dime in mission support,” to attract new members, said Smith, a certified master gardener who oversees the nature area and community garden. “If we do anything, we do it ourselves.”
She added that last year the church was $3,000 short of being financially self-sufficient.
Kantner said the diocese’s lack of candor has raised other red flags, such as how the church’s money has been spent and why his church was put up for sale when there are other small congregations like the Church of the Intercession.
THE DEVELOPER SPEAKS
The controversy has not gone unnoticed by developer Jay Clark, who with his partner Jay Fertig, have offered to buy the church property.
Clark said their project would feature 60 two-story townhouses houses in 10 buildings. The two-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath units will have a total of 1,600 square feet, including a single car garage. The price for each townhouse would range from $230,000 to $240,000, “depending on the market,” he said.
The current zoning is for 15 single-family homes, according to city records.
“But realistically only five or six could be built there,” Clark said.
“Our offer is contingent on getting the zoning changed,” he said. That change would allow for the 60 townhouses, a community swimming pool and green space, including preserving some of the trees.
“We’re looking at incorporating a community garden and turning over the control to the South Middle River Civic Association,” Clark said. The garden, he added, would be about 20-feet wide by 200-feet deep, about one-tenth the size of the current garden.
Clark said he knows that some people don’t want change, but others want to clean up the property and turn it into something that can make the community proud.
“We’re not trying to ram anything down their throats,” he said.
DENSITY TOO HIGH?
The South Middle River neighborhood is bounded by Sunrise Boulevard on the south, Powerline Road on the west, Northeast Fourth Avenue on the east and the South Fork of the Middle River on the north.
Neighbors are concerned an influx of new residents to the area will aggravate existing problems.
Lawrence Jackson-Rosen is president of the South Middle River Civic Association. He said the elimination of the church grounds will further limit green space that’s already in short supply.
“It’s the most populous neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale,” he said. “We have more than 2,500 households here.”
Jackson-Rosen said the association has not yet taken a formal position on the project, but is taking a survey of residents’ thoughts about the townhouse project that’s available online and via hard copies at association meetings.
With nearly 50 survey returned, “Thus far, the overwhelming majority of people who returned the survey oppose the change” in zoning, he said. Based on the feedback, the association will take a stand and provide that to the city, he added.
Gregg Pentecost, a local Realtor who is also a member of the civic association, offered his personal opinion. “People are already complaining about the traffic now and adding at least 120 more cars is not attractive,” he said.
The church site is amid a neighborhood packed with 1950s bungalows, some of which are foreclosed and stand empty, while others have been renovated. The dusty neighborhood, in the process of renewal through gentrification, has some of the last unpaved roads and in Fort Lauderdale, according to Pentecost, who lives a block-and-a-half away from the church and heads up the survey.
‘PEOPLE ARE CONCERNED’
“People are concerned about the loss of green space, the disposition of animals on the site, the environmental effects including water runoff and traffic,” he said.
“There are no sidewalks and most of the children play and walk to school in the streets,” he said.
The west end of the church property includes an octagonal-shaped church sanctuary plus several concrete block buildings that serve as offices, a church hall and a kitchen and a food bank. Last year, the church provided 22,000 meals for those in need, Kantner said.
Towering mango and mahogany trees and other mature trees on site provide cool shade over open spaces. To the west of the sanctuary is the Memorial Garden where the parishioners’ cremains are interred. The diocese’s Bruttell said he is aware of the situation and has talked to two or three churches about reburying the biodegradable containers.
A path on the eastern portion of the property leads to a sanctuary of greenery where visitors can enjoy a quiet moment with nature, said Smith, the church member who oversees the natural area and community garden.
Smith and other volunteers have been shaping and cultivating the nearly 1-acre garden area for the past 14 years.
“We started with hardscrabble and kept adding mulch and now we have free garden plots for church members and anyone in the neighborhood who wants one,” she said.
The idea of the organic community garden came 15 years ago from a former church priest, Kantner said. At the time, the project had the backing of the diocese.
“For years now, we have had no help from the diocese with the garden,” said Kantner. “We have had help from the neighborhood, school and other groups.”