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Commission, prosecutor engage in war of words

At issue: controversy over church building project

by Kim Fickett
Landmark reporter

A war of words has developed between county commissioners and the county prosecutor over what some Platte County officials originally believed may have been a zoning violation by an Edgerton church.

As reported in last week’s issue of The Landmark, Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd made the decision to not pursue criminal action against the Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Edgerton for building a portico without a county issued permit. The church was recently annexed by the city of Edgerton, an annexation the county commission has previously maintained was done improperly. As a result of the annexation into Edgerton, the church would not have to conform to planning and zoning/building codes of the county.

The war of words has developed after Zahnd said Platte County Commissioner Betty Knight had encouraged him to examine criminal prosecution of the church. Knight has said she did not encourage any criminal action.

After Zahnd announced he doesn't consider the situation a criminal matter, the Platte County Commission issued a letter to Pastor Rick Lumm of Mt. Zion Baptist Church on July 14 stating, “There has been a misunderstanding.”

The letter continued to explain that the standard procedure under Platte County’s Zoning Order is to notify owners of suspected violations and request compliance. If no response is received, the matter is referred to the prosecuting attorney for review.

“This referral is not a demand for criminal prosecution, although that is an option that can result from the referral. Commissioner Knight did not ask the prosecutor to pursue criminal charges against Mt. Zion Baptist Church. She does not have that authority individually and the commission has never discussed or approved this course of action.”

While Knight continues to take the stance that she did not ask Zahnd to pursue criminal action, Zahnd issued a response to the commission’s letter.

“Let me be very clear about Betty Knight and the commission’s role in this matter,” said Zahnd. “Betty Knight raised the specific issue of whether my office was going to take action against Mt. Zion Baptist Church in a call to my home on Saturday, June 19. I understand that this is the only time Commissioner Knight has ever contacted the prosecutor’s office—much less the elected prosecutor—to discuss the prosecution of an alleged zoning violation.”

Zahnd continued: “There has been no misunderstanding. I explained to her that my office would only consider whether or not criminal charges were appropriate and that my office would not be involved in any civil lawsuit available to the commission.

“I also explained to her at length why I was not inclined to file criminal charges. I told her the commission could file a civil lawsuit regardless of my decision on criminal charges. After all of this explanation that my office would only be involved in potential criminal charges, she persisted in urging me to pursue the matter and requested that I speak with County Counselor Michael Gunn before making a final decision on criminal charges. I told her I would do so,” Zahnd said this week.

While Knight and Zahnd continue their debate, the real question remains is the annexation of the church by the City of Edgerton legal according to state law?

In the letter issued by the commission, they maintain their respect for the church’s stand on the belief that the annexation is legal. Commissioners now indicate they will leave the responsibility of that belief in the hands of the church and the City of Edgerton.

“We remain concerned that the codes enforcement officer has identified construction practices on the site that she deems constitute a dangerous situation but understands the church’s position that it has been annexed into the city of Edgerton. Consequently, we feel that we have raised the issue and it is now up to the church and city of Edgerton to supervise this project. We stand ready to assist in any way possible.”

According to Zahnd, if the county still remains concerned about the construction, their only action is through a civil lawsuit.

“If the commission is concerned with what they term a 'dangerous situation,' with the church’s construction project, that concern can only be addressed through a civil lawsuit. A criminal case cannot make a building safer; it can only assess a fine or put someone in jail for up to a year. There is no way a judge in a criminal case can order a building to be rebuilt,” said Zahnd.

Second District Commissioner Steve Wegner on Monday afternoon stated that the commission and the Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Edgerton had reached an agreement and the debate is no longer an issue.

The commission early this week drafted an amendment to its original letter dated July 14 that was issued to Pastor Lumm. The amendment states: “While Platte County does not agree with the annexation in this situation, Platte County will accept this particular annexation with no further intervention.”

Lumm told The Landmark Monday morning that the church wanted the assurance from the commission that it would not interfere with future projects, such as a family center the church eventually plans to build. The family center will be about a 12,000 square foot facility that will offer space for basketball, volleyball, family reunions, wedding receptions, and other family events, Lumm said last week.

There has been some speculation—denied by the county commissioners—that the county wanted control of building on the church grounds because it is concerned that a family center open free of charge to the general public would offer competition to the membership-based Platte County Community Center being built in Platte City.

“We have no intent in challenging the annexation,” Wegner reconfirmed the commission’s stance in the amended letter.

After both entities had reached an agreement, Lumm released this statement to The Landmark.

“Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Edgerton is pleased to announce they have received a letter from the Platte County Commissioners Office that has brought a permanent resolution to the annexation issue regarding their property, the construction of the portico and the future Community Life Center.”

While it looks like the church and the commission have come to an agreement, Wegner stated he is disappointed in Zahnd’s actions during the situation.

“We feel the prosecuting attorney outstepped his bounds in this issue and we are disappointed that he failed to consult with the commission before drafting and sending his letter. It is his responsibility as prosecuting attorney to represent the county and he should’ve consulted the commission before sending the letter,” said Wegner.

Zahnd, in response, says it's his belief Wegner is confused about how the process works.

"Commissioner Wegner fundamentally misunderstands this process. Criminal charges are a very serious matter and I have an ethical duty to be an independent official, and in any decision to bring a criminal case I represent the state of Missouri, not the county commission or any other alleged victim of a crime.

"I am sorry the commission apparently is disappointed with my decision not to file criminal charges against this church but my only duty is to the state of Missouri and its citizens," Zahnd said Tuesday.



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