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Since construction of the "garage" was stopped last February, Michael Salman has been in the application process for a fully equipped church.
To the neighborhood's horror, the city has been moving his application along. Indeed, Salman has overcome every roadblock that's stood in his way.
First, there was the question of "primary use." The law says you can build a church only if it's the "primary," and most visible, structure on the property. With Salman's 3,800-square-foot house sitting front and center, the neighbors were sure they had him there — the house, to them, was clearly "primary."
But while the residents watched aghast, city planners suggested a way around that. If Salman made the church bigger than the house, it could be the primary structure. And, the planners said, if he put a big sign in the front yard, it would make the church more visible than the home sitting in front of it.
At that point, Salman changed his application to make the church 4,200 square feet — and agreed to erect a big sign.
Next, the neighbors argued that Salman needed more parking spaces. The city of Phoenix used to require one parking space for every five seats in a church; the North Glen Square neighbors thought that was way too few. At the neighbors' urging, the City Council agreed to consider a new ordinance, requiring one parking space for every three seats. That would mean so much parking that Salman would lose almost his entire backyard to asphalt.
The City Council approved the new rule unanimously.
But Salman is now appealing, saying that the city can't apply the new rule to his application retroactively. The neighbors are now afraid the city will cave on that, too. The neighbors are afraid the city will cave on that, too. After all, City Manager Frank Fairbanks has been urging caution, saying that the city needs to take Salman's constitutional rights into account.
"It's very important as we deal with this issue that we make sure we don't do anything unlawful or anything that violates his rights," Fairbanks tells New Times. "If we do that, in the end, the city would lose. So the city is making sure that none of his rights are violated, but at the same time, he has to comply with the city's rules and regulations."
Raya Tahan is a Phoenix lawyer hired by a group of six neighbors, including the Juliuses, to stop Salman. She can't believe the city has been cowed by the threat of a lawsuit.
"Everybody else, every other day, has to follow the rules," she says. "Except for Michael Salman. They let him just walk right through the door."
The construction will have a major impact on Salman's neighbors' property values, Tahan says. For one thing, the city is saying that he has to follow setback rules for residential, not commercial, construction.
That means his church will be permitted to sit just three feet from his next-door neighbor's property line.
That neighbor has since put up his house for sale, according to MLS listings. Tahan says that proves her point.
"If a Realtor does an open house, and the cars are lined up, up and down the street, and people can hear a sermon coming from the backyard, nobody will want to move there," she says. "People want a quiet neighborhood."
Salman, of course, sees things differently. He says he's never been anything but polite, yet the neighborhood is against him. And though he has every right to build, he believes the city is making him jump through hoop after hoop.
When Councilman Claude Mattox, who represents the area, called Salman to set up a meeting with the neighbors last year, Salman refused.
"I told him, 'I'm not going to talk to the neighbors,'" Salman says, emphatically. Almost immediately thereafter, he says, the city issued its "stop work" order. Salman says he called Mattox's office back in a rage: "'That's crooked! Because I don't want to sit down and meet with you guys, you give us a stop work order?'
"Why should I meet with him?" he asks. "I did everything according to the law."
Salman is now convinced that Mattox is out to get him. He references a meeting of the North Glen Square Neighborhood Association last fall. He didn't attend, but a member of his church, Brad Fronek, did.
Fronek says that Mattox spoke at great length about why churches were inappropriate for residential areas. Then he uttered the clincher.
"He made a point of saying that he didn't think Michael was totally above board about some things," Fronek says. "He felt like he had lied about some things, and he questioned his motives and his qualifications. He made mention of the fact that he was an ex-con — and then he said he felt that Michael was a religious zealot."
Mattox did not return repeated calls for comment.
Mary Bettis has the short gray hair and brisk friendliness of a retired accountant, which is exactly what she is. In her neighborhood, though, she's better known as the "mayor of North Glen Square."
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