Onancock Approves Special Use Permit For Church, Discusses Nonprofit Tax Policy

Town of Onancock welcome sign. Photo by Carol Vaughn.

By Carol Vaughn —

The Onancock Town Council Monday approved a special use permit for Onancock Baptist Church to use 67 Market St. (the Shore Electronics building) for church youth group meetings and other ministry use.
The church recently made an offer to purchase the property. The church has been renting the parking lot at the property for some time and is willing to make parking available to the town when it is not being used for services.
The vote included the provision that the church will develop a formal agreement for town use of the parking lot.
The council action takes the property off the town real estate tax rolls because it becomes part of a church — a fact that sparked a lengthy discussion before the council voted 5-1 to approve the permit. Councilwoman Maphis Oswald voted against it.
The tax amounts to around $550 annually.
Part of the discussion was about the idea the building’s front, 2,000-square-foot retail space could be rented out to a non-church related business.
“They are very interested in renting that. My concern was that the special use permit would allow the building to transfer to a party that was going to leave it empty, which perpetuates the problem that we all know on Market Street, which is empty storefronts,” said Town Manager Matt Spuck.
“The front should be treated differently,” Oswald said of the building’s proposed uses and the tax-exempt status.
“This is a very muddy area to me,” she said.
Spuck said the town needs to look at differing taxation status of several properties owned by non-profit organizations.
As an example, he said Hopkins Store, owned by the Eastern Shore Historical Society, has a similar situation, where the building is tax exempt but the restaurant inside does pay personal property taxes.
“We need a consistent plan,” Oswald said.
Spuck agreed, saying staff are analyzing which non-profits are or are not paying real estate taxes.
“We’re going to need much more clarity in our zoning and we are going to have to get right with those organizations,” Spuck said.
“We need to have a cohesive policy,” said Mayor Fletcher Fosque.
There was no public comment on the permit.
Bill Phillips, representing the church, said the church “certainly could pay taxes on that third of the building.” He noted the church pays real estate taxes on property it owns, but does not currently use for ministry, on Fairgrounds Road.
“The parking lot is what we’re after; that’s our main interest,” he said.
Historic Onancock School Update
The Friends of Onancock School, while the former school has been closed to the public during the pandemic, installed an elevator to make the building accessible.
The Eastern Shore Community Foundation awarded a $50,000 grant for the elevator and accessible restrooms project. The town of Onancock contributed $7,500 to the project.
With events and a planned capital campaign cancelled because of the pandemic, the group tightened its budget, Joani Donohoe, FOS executive director, told the town council in the group’s annual report to the town.
Making the building accessible opens the way for grant funding, according to the report.
Roof improvements above the community events room were completed in January, and painting and repairs to the interior have continued with volunteer labor.
Historic Onancock School received a $48,000 grant from the Orr-Smith Foundation for playground improvements and funds from the United Way of the Eastern Shore paid for rubber mulch in the swings/play area.
New playground equipment was delivered earlier this winter and will be assembled in spring.
All studios in the building are rented and there is a waiting list, Donohoe said.
Nearly 9,000 people visited or attended functions at HOS in 2019. The number dropped to 1,200 in 2020 with pandemic restrictions and event cancellations, although many people continue to use the grounds to exercise or for outdoor leisure activities.
The FOS is planning a new, outdoor event — the Creekside Crawl 5K — in April, and a community celebration for LoveWorks (the new LOVE sign), completion of the accessibility project, and the new playground is in the works this fall when it becomes safe to gather.

Previous articleCape Charles Water and Wastewater Plants: Still Looking for Answers About Sale
Next articleMargaret Vianna Nedab