Edmonton Journal

GraceLife Church plans expansion after high-profile COVID-19 battle


GraceLife Church — the Edmonton-area congregati­on whose pastor was jailed for refusing to follow COVID rules, sending fractures through Alberta's conservati­ve movement — is planning a major expansion.

According to a notificati­on letter sent to neighbours last month, GraceLife is seeking to add 50,000 square feet to its Parkland County campus, divided equally between a new sanctuary and “education centre” connected by walkway to the church's existing building. The plan would see Sunday attendance rise from 800-900 congregant­s split between two services to 1,200-1,500 in one large service.

“As per Parkland County's public engagement policy, we are required to seek public feedback on the proposed developmen­t prior to the formal developmen­t permit applicatio­n being accepted for review,” the letter states.

The church held an informatio­n meeting Monday for residents near the property, off Highway 627 adjacent to the Edmonton Corn Maze.

“Parkland County has not yet issued a permit for the expansion,” county director of planning and developmen­t services Nancy Domijan said in an email. “GraceLife Church is required to complete public engagement prior to the submission of a formal developmen­t permit applicatio­n.”

GraceLife became internatio­nal news in the winter of 2020-21 when it refused to follow public health orders limiting capacity during worship services. Its pastor, James Coates, spent 35 days in jail for refusing to agree to a bail condition ordering him to follow masking rules and capacity limits on worship services.

The standoff reached a peak in 2021 when officials fenced off GraceLife's Parkland County building. The move was met with protests and led GraceLife to continue holding services at a secret location. The imbroglio received internatio­nal media coverage.

A COVID ticket against Coates was dismissed last August after the Court of King's Bench found many public health restrictio­ns were invalid because final approval was given by politician­s and not the chief medical officer of health, as legislatio­n at the time required.

In-person worship restrictio­ns were cited by some anti-mandate forces in the United Conservati­ve Party for the decision to oust then-premier Jason Kenney in favour of Danielle Smith, who as a media commentato­r suggested the law behaved illegally in enforcing worship restrictio­ns. A judge hearing the GraceLife case dismissed similar arguments.

The expansion would include a new parking lot, stormwater pond and road entrance. The church has completed a wetlands assessment, geotechnic­al report and traffic impact assessment, according to the notificati­on letter. The traffic report, which as of January was under review by Alberta Transporta­tion, said upgrades to Highway 627 would not be required.

The church expects average Sunday parking needs would rise to 480 vehicles from 355 vehicles — an average increase of about 80 trips per day, mostly concentrat­ed on weekends.

“Since the developmen­t is not projected to add any traffic during the peak hours of traffic, improvemen­ts to the intersecti­on are not recommende­d for the approval of this project and the developmen­t does not add any additional traffic during the peak hours of traffic flow to make the level of service worsen any quicker,” GraceLife's report states.

Ayman Hassan, a nearby resident, said many neighbours are opposed to the expansion. In an email sent to the church, shared with Postmedia, he described Monday's meeting as “heated.”

He said he had expected the church to apologize to residents for the “COVID-created chaos” of 2021. Regardless of who caused the standoff, “the fact of the matter is you blew that trumpet and you lit that match that led to the police barricades.”

“This is not about `nimbyism' but about trust, as I see it,” he added. “We as a community do not trust your words and we do not trust your assessment­s. Your past actions and deeds have spoken volumes to us.”

Feedback is being accepted through Feb. 26, according to GraceLife's letter.

The church declined comment.

 ?? GREG SOUTHAM ?? GraceLife Church, shown 2021, is seeking to add 50,000 square feet to its Parkland County facility.
GREG SOUTHAM GraceLife Church, shown 2021, is seeking to add 50,000 square feet to its Parkland County facility.

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