The Brookfield Planning and Zoning Commission has recommended against granting a special use permit to the owner of The Compassion Factory art gallery, 9210 Broadway Ave., for religious assembly, dealing a local pastor another setback in finding a permanent spot for his congregation to worship.
Despite a strong show of support for the Rev. Karl Sokol’s request from members of the community, members of the commission voted 3 to 2 – commission member Karen Miller and Chairman Charles Grund were absent – during a March 22 hearing to recommend denying Sokol’s application.
Commissioners Patrick Benjamin, Todd Svoboda and Mark Weber voted against granting the special use, while Jennifer Hendricks and Chris Straka voted in favor.
The recommendation for denial will head to the village board for discussion at their April 9 meeting. A formal vote on the commission’s recommendation could come as early as April 23.
“The upside of this process is that we have found out that there are a lot of people who support us even though they likely will never be directly affiliated with our congregation,” Sokol told the Landmark in an email. “I am praying that they will make the extra effort to come to the actual village board meeting on April 9 and share that with the board.”
More than 30 supporters showed up at the meeting and 59 people submitted letters of support to Village Planner Emily Egan, who also recommended denying Sokol’s application.
In her staff report on the application, Egan said religious assembly at the art gallery “is not necessary” and “does not provide for the general welfare” of the Eight Corners business district, which is identified in the village’s recently adopted comprehensive plan as a pedestrian-oriented commercial/residential district.
It’s not the first time the village has looked askance at allowing a religious use at Eight Corners. In 2010, the village board voted down a proposal to build a church/community center at one of corners.
That proposal came from Sokol’s mother, Linda Sokol Francis, who has purchased three of the eight corners in recent years. Francis was a longtime member of Brookfield United Methodist Church, which folded due to dwindling membership and an inability to afford maintaining their church building.
The Rev. Karl Sokol subsequently was named pastor of a “seed congregation” – Compassion United Methodist Church – which replaced Brookfield United Methodist. The congregation has been without a permanent home since its foundation in 2011.
Sokol told planning commissioners at the March 22 hearing that the congregation has held 166 worship services over seven years in 14 different locations and that the logistics of finding a place, lugging equipment and notifying members weekly of what was going on was “exhausting.”
“We really need a stable house where we can worship at,” Sokol said.
In 2016, Compassion United Methodist Church purchased the former dry cleaning business at 9210 Broadway Ave. and has since turned it into an art gallery that hosts exhibits, classes, studio space and special events.
The hope all along had been to host a two-hour worship service there for the roughly 30 active members of the congregation each Sunday.
Sokol and his supporters argued that the congregants would drive traffic and business to the Eight Corners area and as such supported the goal of revitalizing the district.
“We’re not looking to take over the world or even Brookfield,” said Michael Stenson, a Brookfield resident and treasurer for Compassion United Methodist. “We’re simply looking to improve the world we live in and assemble in the building we own for a short time each week.”
Village Attorney Richard Ramello appeared to indicate that since Sokol was offering it as a condition for approval, the commission could add language to the special use permit, limiting religious assembly at the art gallery to two hours every Sunday.
But opponents said they believed approving a special use for religious assembly would pave the way for the art gallery to become a full-fledged church.
“This is a classic bait-and-switch,” said Connie Buczkowski. “The unfinished concrete floors are simply waiting for carpeting and pews.”
Sokol’s attorney, Dan Shapiro, argued that the Eight Corners zoning district was the only one allowing “religious assembly” as a special use, drawing a distinction between that term and “churches” or “places of worship,” which are allowed as a special use in several zoning districts, including purely residential districts.
Commissioner Patrick Benjamin, who chaired the hearing in Grund’s absence, echoed the belief that Sokol was seeking to introduce a church to Eight Corners and said he wasn’t buying Shapiro’s reading of the zoning code.
“I really think that’s about what you’re trying to do here,” Benjamin said prior to his vote to recommend denial of Sokol’s application, “and you’re wrapping around this ‘religious assembly’ thing to try to do it.”
Benjamin also appeared skeptical of Ramello’s interpretation, saying, “Once a religious use is established, it’s very difficult to control it within their mission.”
Sokol said he will continue his “fight for what we feel are our basic rights of assembly, speech and religion.”