Church hopes to get legal

2014-06-18 00:00

DURBAN planning officials have recommended a lucrative “place of worship” status for a suburban home despite it “illegally” operating as a church; posing a possible safety hazard; enraging its neighbours; and being built without plans.

Opposition councillors say a simple religious rezoning application appears to have “washed away the sins” of a residential home, which calls itself Cornerstone Ministries in Chatsworth, which the city had hoped to demolish through a court order just three months ago.

eThekwini town planning committee member Gill Noyce, who will join fellow councillors in inspecting the site tomorrow, said “we have a huge problem in which residents get away with all kinds of problems, not to mention paying rates, just by claiming to be a church”.

At an eThekwini town planning sub-committee meeting, town planners admitted to councillors that “Applicant has used the residence as a church illegally for about 10 years; he also started building without apparent plans” and that an eThekwini traffic impact report on a legalised church there was “negative”. But city officials recommended that the committee “legalise” the operation and grant its rates-shelter status anyway.

The Witness has received a copy of a letter by the owner Pastor Raj Kistensamy to the council, invoking the support of controversial ANC leader Visvin Reddy “and comrades”.

Although a hall within the home seats only 120 worshippers — the ministry claims a membership of 200 — the city stated that “it is attracting Indian people and also many new followers from Umlazi township and other black areas”.

Ramesh Ramsunder (57) is one of 14 neighbours who lodged official objections. “We did a survey which found there are now 15 so-called churches within half a kilometre radius of here, the noise and the traffic are unbearable. What I cannot understand is how the council would go to court to have the place demolished, on the one hand, and now its suddenly backing the place. We have no problem with legitimate churches, there is one opposite my house, but it is often just a money-making scheme, and people are suckers when you invoke God,” said Ramsunder.

At the committee meeting, NFP councillor Wiseman Mcoyi said: “I think that God would prefer to be at a place that is legal”.

In an phone interview from Dubai, another neighbour, international businessman Aman Khedun, said: “This is a particularly ugly structure which poses a real safety risk.”

However, yesterday, Kistensamy told The Witness he had donated his home to his own ministry in response to a personal calling.

“The construction here was not illegal as the municipality was fully informed about it; we have been dealing with inspectors and we needed to erect a retaining wall for people’s safety because the bank was collapsing. You must remember this was once a bushy area which attracted criminality and prostitution. We could have put up flats, but instead we chose to serve the community.”

Responding to objections relating to street parking, Kistensamy said he would establish “quite adequate” basement parking.

Kistensamy, who said he was certified both as a marriage officer and a commissioner of oaths, claimed that both the mayor and speaker of eThekwini Municipality had visited the church on invitations from Reddy.

He added that he needed the new zoning status in order to comply with a court order to improve building and safety standards at the site.

Town planning officials agreed with the pastor, saying their recommendation did not endorse building standards, but was strictly for a rezoning, which recognised that Kistensamy “was trying to comply with the court order”.

However, Noyce complained that “We are being invited to legalise all of the applicant’s illegalities — are we not rewarding people who do the wrong thing?”

The city’s recommendation stated that “The church brings a needed religious development into the sprawling community and it is part of social upliftment” and “the service offered by the church is essential and needs support”.

In March, a city legal adviser told the Durban high court that Kistensamy had erected second-storey roof slabs to the church ‘in blatant contravention” of building inspector stop orders, and said a city engineer had warned that the illegal structure may be “unstable”.

One neighbour, B. Govender, warned town planners that the construction was “a reminder of the Tongaat Mall”.

Committee chairman Velile Lutyeko said the church’s corner location made it a good candidate for rezoning, but agreed to Noyce’s proposal that members conduct a site inspection tomorrow.

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