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When the unwelcomed neighbour is the church


Sunday, September 17, 2017

From as far back as 1996, Oku Onuora has been attending church every Sunday, though not by choice. In fact, from time to time he can go up to six times a week, depending on when his neighbour, Harvest Temple Apostolic, chooses to meet.

But instead of uplifting Onuora, the church in Portsmouth, Portmore, is taking a toll on him. The author and dub poet said had he known the land would one day accommodate a church, he would not have bought a house next door in 1979.

The land currently houses Harvest Temple Basic School where the congregation worships. Construction work, apparently on a permanent church building, is taking place to one side of the property.

“Sunday is a day that I do a lot of writing... it's the start of my week and, over the years, I had to flee from my home to escape the noise and have some peace and quiet,” Onuora said.

He said that in 2000 his gravely ill mother complained to him about the noise from the church, and when he asked the members to turn the sound down he was told “the Bible says make a joyful noise unto the Lord”.

Onuora believes he's suffering because the authorities are nervous about going up against the church. “In Jamaica, the church is seen as untouchable,” he charged.

He said on only a few of the many occasions he has reported Harvest Temple have the police come and asked the church to turn the sound down. After a while, Onuora said he stopped reporting the problem to police because it wasn't making any difference.

“I was actually told to come out of the station. I've been told by the police that church can't make noise,” he said.

Statistics from the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) reveal no complaints about churches for 2016, although head of communications, Superintendent Stephanie Lindsay, said this does not mean there were none in previous years.

The nearby Waterford police told our news team they are aware of the problem, but it was so long ago they can't remember the outcome, and that they would normally investigate if there was a complaint.

Churches, just like parties and stage shows, must comply with the Noise Abatement Act (1997), according to Keisha Wright, manager for social intervention and public order at the Ministry of National Security, which is now making amendments to the Act.

The Act states that a person who intends to operate equipment to provide music for dancing or any other entertainment in a public place where it may disturb private residents “shall make a written application, to the superintendent of police in charge of the division in which the activity will be held, for permission to do so”.

But though worship incorporates some of these elements, when Bishop Kingsley Carter of Harvest Temple was asked whether he has ever applied for a permit, he said, “We don't need a permit to make noise. What kind of question is that you're asking?” He did say on one occasion, in 2005, he was asked by a police superintendent to stop using a steel horn and he has complied, but the superintendent did not see where the church was violating the law.

When we asked the ministry's Wright about the difference between churches and events she said, “I'm not suggesting that there is impunity where churches are concerned… Church has a moral responsibility and residents have a right, so it's a delicate balance.”

The Development and Investment Manual stipulates that “religious activities may be located in most areas depending on their acceptability by the community”.

National Environment and Planning Agency's (NEPA's) Director of Spatial Planning Division Leonard Francis said there are certain conditions that affect planning decisions, and noise is one of them. He said it is the responsibility of the authority granting permission to also have consultations with the community.

But NEPA, in this case, did not have record of a development application for Harvest Temple at Portsmouth, Portmore. Instead, it was the Portmore Municipal Corporation (PMC) that, as of November 23, 2016, gave the church approval to build a concrete structure — an upgrade from its current board structure. Approval from the local authority alone is sometimes sufficient, according to Francis.

Director of planning, environment and development at the PMC, Onigraay Parker, said what's required of all applicants of building permits is that they publish a notice outside the building of their intent to build for a period of no less than 14 days. If no member of the community objects during that time, then the application may be processed and the permit granted.

But the PMC didn't know if the notice was published, and Bishop Carter said he doesn't remember either. An assistant pastor who Carter said may have this information could not be reached by phone. According to Parker, “PMC wasn't required to do a noise assessment based on our position being better able to determine the situation that is before us.”

But Onuora is adamant that “nothing was posted”.

“I would have known,” he insisted. He said that had the notice been posted, he would have made a formal objection to the PMC, just like he did in 2015, and as he did several times, dating as far back as 1998, to various other agencies, including the St Catherine Parish Council and the Commissioner of Lands, which leased the government land to Harvest Temple.

Our team of reporters reviewed the letters by Onuora. One response from the St Catherine Parish Council, dated March 16, 1998, said the matter was being investigated. Yet another dated 2003 said the matter had been referred to the PMC “for the necessary action”.

But when we showed Onuora's letters to Parker, he maintained the PMC has no record of complaints from Onuora or anyone else against the church. “Given that due diligence was followed in processing this application, and there are no material changes, environmental changes or issues, security threat, etc, it will not be possible at this time to rescind the approval that was granted,” he said.

One of our reporters visited the church on Sunday, August 6, and heard the amplified sounds Onuora complains about from next door. However, she could not hear it past 100 metres (328.08 feet), the distance beyond which the Noise Abatement Act states a sound should not be audible from the source.

Still, while some residents in Portsmouth acknowledged the church can get loud, most people we spoke with were supportive of the church. “This church is good for the community. It plays an important role for all of us,” said one resident.

However, Francis said even if one person in a community objects to a building approval, he or she can take the matter to the public defender and/or file legal action through the courts.

Onuora said, though he's not anti-church, “At this stage there can be no compromise… they can't tell me that they're going to tone down the noise. I want them to move; I don't want that structure to be built there.”


— Additional reporting by Zahra Burton.

Alayne Richards, Andrew Green, and Shanoy Fletcher are community journalists from the National Integrity Action and USAID Comet II Programme being run by Global Reporters for the Caribbean.