What makes a building a church?
More than just the occasional wedding or prayers said during special events, the New Orleans Board of Zoning Adjustments decided Monday.
The board ruled unanimously that by claiming the former Monastery and Chapel of St. Joseph and St. Teresa on North Rampart Street is still a place of worship, developer Sidney Torres IV was merely placing a fig leaf over a business plan that was no different from an event hall or venue.
And that, they said, put Torres — a wealthy businessman who this year contemplated running for mayor and three years ago feuded publicly with an Esplanade Avenue bar next to his home over what he said was excessive noise — at odds with the city’s comprehensive zoning ordinance.
The wrangling over the property, known as The Monastery since Torres purchased and renovated it last year, comes amid complaints from neighbors about loud receptions, equipment blocking nearby streets and a series of events that included weddings but also less religious festivities such as a Jameson whiskey party during the Tales of the Cocktail festival.
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The Monastery is zoned as a religious building, meaning it is allowed to have special events without going through what would likely be a difficult process of getting rezoned as a reception hall. But the board ruled that simply hosting those events, without regular services or a congregation, does not make a building a church.
“It really feels like this for-profit LLC operates as an event venue and not as a place of worship or church,” said board member Alfonso Gonzalez II.
Torres said he plans to appeal to Civil District Court.
“We’re going to fight it. We’re going to take it to court,” he said. “Whatever legal rights we have, we’re going to exercise all; we’re not going to back down.”
After last year’s renovations, The Monastery was given a permit to operate as a religious facility. Justin Schmidt, Torres’ attorney, told the board that at the time he and Safety and Permits Director Jared Munster had agreed that they wouldn’t debate what constitutes a religion.
The initial discussions seemed to envision the site being used mainly for religious-related events such as weddings and associated receptions.
But Munster said the actual events — which included a multi-day vampire-themed party and other balls and galas — have gone far beyond what had been represented. And advertising that paints the site as perfect for corporate events and conferences of up to 1,500 people further showed a lack of religious leanings, he said.
Torres said religious ceremonies had been held during each of the 20 events at the venue, which also included weddings. And Schmidt said the corporate events had been a mistake, though Munster noted that the corporate advertising was still up as of Monday.
Both Torres and Schmidt also argued that Munster should not be able to go back on his initial approval and assurances, which led to a lease to the catering company that directly runs The Monastery’s events. But Munster replied that the business had not been living up to the representations it made to him.
The board avoided wading into the rocky theological waters of defining what constitutes a religion, focusing instead on the legal definition of a place of worship. According to city regulations, such a building is primarily used for religious activity and services but can also have special events.
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“What I’m trying to get from you is: What is the primary use of this facility?” board Chairwoman Candice Richards Forest said. “What examples of religious ceremonies have you provided? Everything you’ve presented today are these secondary special events.”
When Schmidt cited weddings and potential bar mitzvahs or other religious events, he faced pushback from the board.
“That’s akin to Southern Oaks or any other beautiful reception hall,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t see any of those events or event spaces coming before Safety and Permits and saying they’re religious.”
The dispute over the nature of the building was exacerbated by parties and events that have disturbed neighbors. Nearby residents told of parties going into the early morning with music loud enough to rattle windows — something that prompted one neighbor to allude to the irony of Torres running a business that was keeping its neighbors up at night just a few years after his own high-profile fight with Buffa’s Bar and Restaurant over noise from that Esplanade Avenue establishment disturbing Torres at his residence next door.
The packet the board received from Munster also cited cases where The Monastery had blocked lanes of traffic on Rampart with charter buses and had placed generators in parking spots on the street.
“Please coordinate and shut this down,” Munster wrote in one email to other officials about those problems. “They represented themselves to me as a church that would host weddings and subsequent receptions. Clearly this was untrue.”