The Brookfield Planning and Zoning Commission has put off a vote on granting a special use permit that would allow church services inside an Eight Corners art gallery, to see if there’s any way to legally limit the church use once it’s granted.

The art gallery is called The Compassion Factory, named after the small, local Methodist congregation Compassion United Methodist Church, which purchased the former dry cleaning business at 9210 Broadway Ave. in 2016.

The church’s pastor, the Rev. Karl Sokol, has spent the last year rehabbing the storefront to house a for-profit art gallery/studio and has hired a full-time executive director to run it. The gallery will host an opening reception for its inaugural exhibition on Jan. 5 at 7 p.m.

An art gallery is a use that’s permitted by right in the commercial zoning district that includes 9210 Broadway Ave. However, religious assembly requires a special use permit in all of Brookfield’s zoning districts. 

Sokol is the son of longtime Brookfield businesswoman and former village trustee Linda Sokol Francis, who has been buying property in the Eight Corners district over the past several years, believing the introduction of a new church and businesses supporting the church’s mission would revitalize the area.

“Our primary mission as a church is to provide something beautiful and necessary for ourselves, for Brookfield and the world,” Rev. Sokol told commissioners at a public hearing on the special use permit on Dec. 28.

Sokol said the Eight Corners area has been underutilized for many years and that the church could have the biggest impact in the district by rehabbing the former dry cleaning business “and make something useful and commercial out of it.”

He said that the art gallery/studio would operate six days a week, but asked the village to allow the church to use the space an hour a week for services. Sokol says he envisions Eight Corners as an “arts district,” though the village has never expressed such a plan.

In 2010, the village board denied Linda Sokol Francis’ bid to obtain a special use permit to construct a church/community center on a large parcel of land she had purchased in the 3400 block of Grand Boulevard. She subsequently conveyed a large portion of that land to the United Methodist Church.

Commissioners voted 4 to 3 on Dec. 28 to delay a decision on the special use permit for religious assembly inside The Compassion Factory until its next meeting on Jan. 25. However, a majority appeared to be leaning against granting the special use permit just prior to that decision.

“I am a bit concerned about the growth of that use, and at some point 20, 30 years down the road it could become predominantly a religious use when the art gallery fades,” said Commissioner Patrick Benjamin, who was joined in voting against delaying the special use decision by Chairman Charles Grund and Commissioner Todd Svoboda.

Commissioners Jennifer Hendricks, Karen Miller, Chris Straka and Mark Weber voted to continue the matter in order to get a legal opinion on limiting the use of the property for religious assembly, though both Miller and Weber appeared to be leaning against granting the special use permit.

Miller pointed to the Brookfield 2020 Master Plan and a nearly complete new comprehensive plan as well as the creation of a tax increment financing district that envisions future development of a pedestrian-oriented commercial/higher-density residential district as reasons for being wary of introducing a religious use.

“The vision for the Eight Corners sub-area is to encourage commercial uses,” Miller said. “The art gallery is not in question here, but this secondary religious assembly use is not appropriate for this site.”

Commissioners also expressed concern that granting a special use permit for religious assembly at The Compassion Factory would set a precedent that might be hard to refuse elsewhere in the Eight Corners TIF district. 

“The village has a compelling interest in protecting the integrity of the [Eight Corners commercial] district,” Benjamin said.