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Church, Snohomish County clash over pole

Snohomish County officials claim Park Ridge church lacks a permit for the pole that lofts the lighted star seen here high into the air in front of the Bothell church. This picture was taken two years ago after a heavy snow hit the area. - Courtesy Photo
Snohomish County officials claim Park Ridge church lacks a permit for the pole that lofts the lighted star seen here high into the air in front of the Bothell church. This picture was taken two years ago after a heavy snow hit the area.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

Both sides claim some news media have focused on the wrong issue.

"It just gets a little distorted in the news," said Pastor Brad Sebranke of Bothell's Park Ridge Community Church.

Just grabbing headlines in the last week, a dispute that began roughly 15 months ago has pitted Park Ridge and Sebranke against Snohomish County officials who say the church needs to obtain a permit for the 90-foot wooden pole that sits in front of the church at 3805 Maltby Rd.

To mark the holidays, Sebranke's congregation has placed a large star at the top of the pole which normally is capped off with a cross.

"The county has made absolutely no claim that the church cannot or should not express its religious freedom with its lighted displays, specifically either a cross or a star in this case," said Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon in an e-mail.

Reardon said the county's actions regarding the pole were in response to a citizen complaint received last year. He added that the complaint obligated the county to look into the pole and ensure any applicable laws are followed.

"The issue the county is obligated to review has nothing whatsoever to do with the display," Reardon said, "but only whether the pole may be a danger to others — including churchgoers and cars on a neighboring busy roadway — if it was not placed in the ground correctly."

Reardon later stated the permit process is the process the county would use to review the safety of the pole.

For his part, Sebranke said he simply can't find anything in the Snohomish County codes requiring his church to obtain and pay for a permit for the pole.

"I don't like it when the government intrudes into private business deeper and deeper," Sebranke added, saying that is why he'll be in front of a Snohomish County hearing examiner Jan. 4 fighting the county's contentions regarding the pole and the permit.

Though it might be another point of contention, Sebranke said the pole originally was put in place by a cell phone company. In his comments, Reardon stated the county has no record of any permit granted for a utility pole or cell phone tower at that location. In any case, when the pole was no longer being put to other purposes, Sebranke said the church decided to use it as a flag pole. And that is where Sebranke again said he and the county began to differ.

"According to what they're saying, you would need a permit for anything... just to bake a cake or whatever," Sebranke said.

According to Sebranke, fines related to the pole initially totaled thousands of dollars. But he claims the county then realized they had billed the wrong parcel. Sebranke said officials placed a new fine on the right parcel number, a fine of $1,500. It is that fine Sebranke added that he is appealing.

Reardon alleges the church has had opportunities to settle the issue.

"Unfortunately, after working with the county for more than a year and assuring the county that information would be provided showing the pole is safe, no information has been provided by the church," Reardon said, further claiming that Sebranke set up meetings with county officials but then never showed up for those meetings.

"The hearing examiner will have the ultimate authority over the county’s decision," Reardon continued. "She will have the opportunity to assess whether the pole should in fact receive a permit... or if it can remain as-is."

Reardon contends the county has no wish to remove the pole unless it proves unsafe.

For his part, Sebranke compared the pole to a church spire.

"We're doing the same thing as a church spire," he said, sticking once more to his contention there is nothing in Snohomish County codes requiring the church gain a permit for the pole.

"The whole thing is now they say it needs to be permitted," Sebranke said. "That's the big question."

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