Church progresses in Coupeville steeple chase

Who knew a steeple for a small community church could generate so much controversy?

Going against an Ebey’s Reserve Design Committee recommendation, the Coupeville Design Review Board approved plans for a new church at the edge of South Main Street in Coupeville during a meeting Tuesday morning.

The new church will become home for the Unity Center of Positive Living Coupeville, which is a small congregation of 40 people that currently worships at the Service Alternatives Center. The church will take up approximately three quarters of an acre of a 3.75 acre parcel.

The proposed church steeple for the 2,700-square-foot church drew controversy from some residents in town.

Critics argued that a steeple popping up from a location near the edge of town would disrupt the historic rural vista of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.

In a letter to the town of Coupeville, resident Gretchen Luxenberg, who also works for the National Park Service, argued that if a steeple is approved, then it should look like a chimney or a cupola that provides ventilation on a barn. She argued that the church should, ideally, not be seen. The building should be painted with dark earth tone colors, and constructed with natural materials. The landscaping should use native plantings that would make the new construction disappear.

Stewart Woods, minister for Unity Church, said he was surprised by the concerns that arose about the steeple. Early discussions with town officials indicated they wanted a traditional church design.

“We were shocked from the very beginning,” Woods said. He pointed out that the church will only take up a small portion of the property. The small building is better than having seven houses built on the property, which is the amount of construction the zoning on the property allows, he said.

To help resolve critics’ concerns, church leaders met with the Ebey’s Design Review Committee to work out an acceptable design. They came up with two options. One, which the church leaders liked, has a steeple based on a church in Stanwood. The design committee preferred a shorter, more open steeple that had a design that wouldn’t stick out too much above the landscape.

Woods said the late Howard Tenkel, the person who donated the money that allowed for the property purchase and construction, loved the design of the church in Stanwood.

Town Planner Larry Kwarsick said the proposed design features are intended to disguise the church.

However, Design Review Board members thought the proposed changes went too far.

“I don’t see copying a school house tower as appealing,” Design Review Board member Randy Williams said. “I think the whole purpose was to de-emphasize the steeple.”

Jan Skubi, who owns property across the street from the lot of the proposed church and supports its construction, echoed Williams’ sentiments.

“I don’t understand where the Reserve is coming from by making a church not look like a church,” Skubi said.

Design Review Board members were not able to ask any Reserve officials their thinking on their preferred steeple design because they didn’t attend the meeting. Skubi and her husband Bill supported the church’s plans and were the only residents who spoke during the public hearing.

The Design Review Board suggested that the church come up with a unique steeple design that can be similar in height to church members’ preferred design.

“It’s got to be consistent with the function of the building, which is a church,” Williams said.

Once the steeple is redesigned, the Design Review Board wants one last look before a building permit is issued. After that, construction can begin on the church.

Woods said he hopes that church construction would be complete by the end of 2010.

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