Money and Marriage

Opponents claim a proposed northeast-side church is primarily a front for wedding business

On a recent Sunday, about 40 parishioners sang songs of praise and listened attentively to a sermon.

Days before, a much-larger crowd attended an elaborate wedding, followed by a catered reception which lasted well into the night.

Both of these events took place at Saguaro Buttes Community Church, located on 26 scenic desert acres along Old Spanish Trail on Tucson's far eastside. The question of whether a somewhat-similar facility, proposed for less than three acres of mesquite-covered property on Tanque Verde Loop Road, will be officially considered a church or a commercial-wedding-reception venue is at the crux of an ongoing dispute.

On a 2008 television program, Mesquite Grove Chapel spokesperson John Fazio said the new church would resemble a "Georgia plantation." He also explained of the church's finances: "(We're) expanding how churches can be involved in the community comfortably without going broke."

Fazio elaborated on that philosophy last week.

"Many churches have offerings which are often miniscule," he said about donations, "so churches have to have other ancillary uses. Weddings are a long-established (church use)."

The new Tanque Verde chapel, located on the northeast side, could hold up to 70 weddings and receptions a year, Fazio said. That means that renting out the church might account for 28 percent of its first year's income. He estimated that weddings and other sacramental services would take up 13 percent of the hours the church is open.

Many of the neighbors who live near the site aren't buying those explanations.

"We welcome Fazio's church," said one of those neighbors, Murray Stein. "The issue is his large wedding business."

At a neighborhood meeting last week, Stein pointed out that a typical church in the area now has about six weddings annually. Stein also spelled out his concerns for the semi-rural neighborhood if the chapel becomes a reality, including overflow parking, traffic congestion, increased nighttime lighting and the serving of alcohol.

"The last thing I want," Stein told approximately 40 people, "is to have an inebriated 20-something driving down the road with kids riding bicycles."

After speaking with the neighbors at an earlier meeting, Fazio came away with the conclusion that "they made a leap of faith that (Mesquite Grove) would be a party house." That sentiment is clearly expressed by dozens of signs protesting the proposal which now line Tanque Verde Loop Road.

Tina Whittemore, chief zoning inspector for Pima County, may soon make the initial decision about the chapel. While churches are allowed anywhere in the county, including the residential zone along Tanque Verde Loop Road, wedding-reception venues are restricted to commercial districts.

In an October e-mail, Whittemore wrote of the Mesquite Grove proposal: "I would agree that this (a wedding-reception venue) probably is exactly what Mr. Fazio intends to do again under the guise of a church."

Based on that opinion, Whittemore last month asked for a lengthy list of material from Fazio, including financial information about two other facilities with which he is associated. However, Fazio did not produce all of the requested data, as he questioned its relevancy. He did respond by writing, "Mesquite Grove Chapel ... will never be a 'commercial wedding venue.'"

Fazio said in an interview: "If revenue determines (what a church is), we'll have (questions about) many churches which have schools onsite, or bar mitzvahs, or day-care centers. The government's use of revenue sources will become very sticky."

However, Stein said he thinks the bulk of Mesquite Grove's use will be for weddings, and thus the revenue questions are appropriate.

"Wedding business in churches competes against other wedding venues which have to pay taxes," he said. "It feels a lot like (Fazio) is gaming (the county's zoning) system."

In her December letter, Whittemore asked specifically for financial information about Reflections at the Buttes, an Oro Valley wedding venue owned by Fazio's wife. Media reports indicate that since it opened eight years ago, an amazing 2,500 weddings have been held at the facility, which is located in a commercial zone.

Fazio emphasized: "Reflections is not a church."

Saguaro Buttes Community Church, on the other hand, holds Sunday services and Tuesday-night Bible-study sessions, and may increase its religious offerings in the coming year.

Fazio is involved with Saguaro Buttes in several ways. He's the contractor for its construction; he serves on its board of directors; and along with his wife, he holds a $371,000 second deed of trust on the property.

Fazio is a longtime acquaintance of the church's pastor, David Hallstrom. Hallstrom recently told his congregation that Saguaro Buttes has "a ministry of doing weddings." He later explained that the church does several weddings per month, and that the receptions for these events must end before midnight. He also noted that some other churches in town host lots of weddings.

Hallstrom had a difficult time getting county approval for his church. When he applied for permission to build it in 2005, Whittemore, who then held a different county position, asked for materials to clarify the use of the facility.

Eventually, Hallstrom submitted a large volume of information to County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, including an estimate that 12 percent of the church's use would be devoted to "weddings/funerals/baptismal services."

Based on this material, Huckelberry concluded of Saguaro Buttes: "It would appear the use is that of a bona fide nonprofit and authorized church," and thus it came into being.

After Whittemore's determination about Mesquite Grove Chapel is rendered, the issue will almost certainly go to the county's Board of Adjustment. In the meantime, both sides have been talking to lawyers.

While that argument continues, a few blocks north of the proposed site of Mesquite Grove Chapel is the tranquil-appearing Tanque Verde Baptist Church, in a building which dates back to 1939.

Gary Elliott is pastor of this small church, and while he hasn't attended the meetings about the Mesquite Grove proposal, he did say: "According to the Bible, a church is to be a ministry, not a business."