Note: This story was last updated at 11:01 a.m. Oct. 1.
It was a difficult decision for many, but members of the Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church voted overwhelmingly on Sunday to sell their building and 3.6 acres to make way for a new Kroger development that could open in 2014.
There were 169 votes in favor of selling and 12 opposed. The vote to sell required a two-thirds majority, or 120 votes.
The sale price for the heavily used property—a serene, wooded tract in the heart of Oak Ridge—has not been publicly disclosed.
The 250 church members could close on the sale between November and April, spokeswoman Jo Ann Garrett said. They’ll have two years to find a new place and move, possibly staying in central Oak Ridge.
“We haven’t committed to anything yet,” Garrett said.
The church land could be used as outparcels, or small lots at the new $30 million shopping center anchored by a Kroger Marketplace. Located on two dozen acres at the busy intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike and Illinois Avenue, the new development would stretch east to Robertsville Road, where the church is located.
The sale depends upon rezoning approvals, among other things. On Oct. 8, the Oak Ridge City Council is expected to consider a project rezoning that has already been recommended by the city’s Municipal Planning Commission.
Church members said the offer they had received from commercial real estate company Blanchard and Calhoun Commercial of Augusta, Ga., was a “tremendous opportunity.” One congregation member said it gave them a chance to start over at a new site. Another pointed out that they would be “boxed in” by the new development if they didn’t sell, and a third said nearby trees would be cut down anyway.
For many, including those with longtime ties to the church, the vote to sell wasn’t easy.
“It’s been quite agonizing for me to think of changing,” said Elizabeth Peelle, who was president of the congregation when the first brick was laid at the church in 1956. “I shall with reluctance and some agony vote yes.”
Several members opposed to the sale cited the church’s gardens and unique features such as a window angled toward the Friendship Bell at nearby A.K. Bissell Park. One warned that the offer from Blanchard and Calhoun would not be a financial cure-all, and another expressed concern about selling to developers of a new shopping center when there are other empty buildings in Oak Ridge.
Still, several members suggested a new building could help them cut down on utility and maintenance costs. The congregation was preparing to spend about $300,000 on maintenance, including to replace single-pane windows and add insulation.
And they now spend about $16,000 to $17,000 for utilities each year and $5,000 per year for maintenance, said Martin Bauer, assistant treasurer and maintenance crew chief. In addition, the roof and air-conditioning units are 13 to 14 years old, and the church recently spent $18,000 to replace two air-conditioning units.
“We can take much of the money and energy that we now spend on utilities and maintenance and put it into people, programs, and public outreach,” said Carol Mason, who chaired a three-year, $1 million church expansion project in the mid-1990s that included the new sanctuary, Hearth Room, and signification renovations. “We can’t do that here.”
Sunday’s vote at the church included a half-hour debate and 20 minutes of ballot counting.
Garrett said Blanchard and Calhoun has drafted some preliminary plans for a new church, so congregation members have a rough idea of the cost of a new building.
She said a local real estate agent and attorney who are not affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Church looked at the offer from Blanchard and Calhoun and deemed it fair.