Church eyes Playhouse for Sunday worship

The Ridgefield Playhouse could become a place of worship this fall, but discussions between Walnut Hill Community Church and the town are still in their preliminary phases.

The non-denominational Christian church based in Bethel is looking to rent the Playhouse for “weekly Sunday morning church worship services and annex meeting rooms for educational use,” according to a special permit request received by the Planning and Zoning Commission last Tuesday, March 12.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi welcomes the idea of renting the town’s property to the church for religious use and doesn’t see a potential issue between church and state; however, there may be a problem between church and recreation.

“My response to the proposal was — there’s nothing wrong with having more opportunities to attend church; we need people to go to church and keep their faith,” Mr. Marconi said. “What we have to be careful of, though, is that there’s a lot of uses for that area, including the use of athletics such as baseball, softball, tennis and skating.

“We have spent over $100,000 on that campus to promote its recreational use and on Sundays, there might be a parking issue between churchgoers and families of athletes. We never intended for that particular location to be religious, so that’s what we have to deal with before anything gets approved.”

The proposal will be discussed at the First Selectmen’s meeting next Wednesday, March 20, before going in front of the  commission for discussion, Mr. Marconi said.

“I’m an advocate of more church, but it’s a question of whether or not this is the right spot,” Mr. Marconi said. “Another issue is whether or not it’s fair for the town to offer one organization a reduced rental price and not others.”

He added that because the Playhouse subleases from the town, it needs the Board of Selectmen to approve of the proposal before it can go ahead with any agreement.

Allison Stockel, the executive director of the Playhouse, confirmed this and acknowledged that the Playhouse would treat the church like any other rental, but would require it to have a flexible rental agreement.

The tentative structure set in place would have Walnut Hill renting the space from 7 to 10 a.m. on Sunday’s, but that is subject to change based on who is performing at the Playhouse and when they have to set up stage production.

“The Playhouse wants this agreement to work out and be put in place this fall, but we will ask them to have their meetings be flexible,” Ms.Stockel said. “We both want to try this out, but our rental policy is always based on availability and to rent our facility we need to be able to be as flexible as possible.”

With an increasing number of members and expansion goals set in place, Walnut Hill wants its sixth campus to be in Ridgefield and hopes it will play host to members located around the area, including Wilton, Redding and North Salem.

Walnut Hill also has campuses in Waterbury, Seymour, Derby and Litchfield. It opened in Bethel in 1996.

Communications Director Lisa Siedlecki said the church has used theater spaces before and it is actively exploring the possibility of setting up a Ridgefield location.

“It’s still in the exploratory phase, but our research has indicated that our congregation is represented largely in the area and we want to serve them and make the church as accessible as possible to them,” Ms. Siedlecki said.

“We’ve never had a problem of church and state and we don’t intend to have one in Ridgefield. We are community oriented and the relationships we have with other communities are great.”

Ms. Siedlecki said that Adam DePasquale, the pastor of regional development, has been to Ridgefield to check out the Playhouse and identified it as an area of interest for Walnut Hill’s expansion.

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