Robert Crowe asked the board to approve a conditional-use permit for use of his 33-acre tract as a Dragon Hill Retreat STAR (Sacred Tribe of the Ancient Roots) Grove, allowing it to be used in activities of the Church of the Spiral Tree, an “ecumenical pagan church.”
The request itself was made by James and Rita Middleton, both members of the Church of the Spiral Tree. As part of the activities of the church on the property, the permit would allow storage buildings that have been used as temporary residences on the property to remain as such.
Crowe said he is Native American and he practices certain pagan rituals that by definition are rooted in an “earth and nature-based religion.”
Crowe said the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Board recommended denial of the request on Jan. 26 simply because the proposed church would promote activities and beliefs to which the members of the board were opposed. According to the minutes of that meeting, there was much discussion about the events that take place on the facility as part of the religious ceremonies, though much of the debate dealt with the housing units on the property, as they were not properly zoned as residential.
“It seems obvious that this refusal to let a group meet and practice their chosen spiritual path is based primarily on personal prejudices, as observed in the board members, and as such deserves absolutely no place in this public forum,” Crowe said. “The board spent most of their time at that Tuesday meeting asking for clarification of the word pagan and generally questioning the morality and ethics of Mr. and Mrs. Middleton.”
Donna Watkins, speaking on behalf of the group, said the county has already demonstrated that it lacks an understanding of the rights granted in the U.S. Constitution, as made evident at the planning and zoning meeting, and the board now has a responsibility to remedy the past wrong.
“If you truly believe in the Constitution, you will do the helpful moral action and reconsider your prejudices,” she said. “This is not a theocracy. This is a democratic government, and I ask that you respect the Constitution.”
With no one speaking in opposition, the Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to deny the request. Because there was not four votes cast in favor or in opposition to the measure — which constitutes a quorum on the board — no formal action was taken.
Commissioner George Chambers, who with Commissioner Kevin Jackson and commission Chairman Bill Chappell voted to deny the request, said his decision was not based in religion at all. Instead, he said, it hinged on the storage units that were being used as housing on the property.
“I don’t take issue with what anyone else’s beliefs are. The issue is a conditional-use permit on the houses,” Chambers said. “It wasn’t an issue of whether or not I agreed with their beliefs or what they do on the land as part of their church. My issue is not with that because the current zoning allows for that. My issue was with the houses.”
Zoning Administrator Artegus Newell said that although the board did not formally take action on the matter, it won’t likely have to go before the board again. Newell said he is hopeful he can convince the applicants to simply stop using the buildings as temporary residences, which should alleviate the need for a conditional-use permit.
“The main issue that we have in Community Development is the storage units that have been used as temporary houses. ... Religious aspects certainly are protected, and we have no issue with that,” Newell said. “We’re going to see if it’s something they can live with in terms of limiting the units for storage and housing for some folks.”
On Tuesday, the board also:
• Tabled a proposed tire ordinance that would require tires on private property to remain clear of sitting water.
• Tabled a proposed condemnation of property on Raburn Road.
• Denied a request made by D&S Propane for a conditional-use permit that would permit bulk storage on an acre of land in Bowdon.
• Approved several budget amendments that were previously voted to be advertised, the largest of which would allow the Recreation Department to hire an additional employee at a salary of $25,000 a year.
• Approved a resolution and ordinance to amend the Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control Ordinance.