Downtown abbey tests limits

Electric bike sales, property use questions bring Anglican leader into conflict with city

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

They use no gasoline. They don't require insurance or a license. They're inexpensive to buy and maintain. And, in an interesting twist, they're helping to underwrite an unusual Anglican congregation in downtown Vancouver.

David Knudtson is selling imported electric bicycles to support the Arnada Abbey at 2001 Broadway.

Is that a church? Despite the prayer circle, altar, murals of Jesus, prominent wooden lawn sign, website, a recent visit from an Anglican church official and a regular schedule of services and events, Knudtson insists it's not.

"It's not a church. It's a religious house," he said. "The Anglican church itself would call it a 'hybrid ministry.'"

Knudtson might be the leader — he's identified as pastor on the website — but he's not a priest, and his property isn't a formal religious institution, he said. What it is, he said, is a rental property that hosts informal religious gatherings.

The matter arises because Knudtson, 52, a successful local real estate agent, has had "many friendly conversations" with Vancouver code enforcement and community development officials, he said, who've questioned everything from the use of his property — church or residence? — to the lack of a street-sale permit for his e-bike business.

Knudtson appears to be threading several legal needles as he struggles with the city. So far, he's succeeded.

Home or church?

Although there's no code enforcement case open against Knudtson now, the paper trail provided by Chad Eiken, Vancouver community and economic development director, makes clear the city's skepticism about Knudtson's statements regarding what's really up at t he Arnada Abbey. And the relationship has been anything but friendly: Knudtson has accused the city of harassment and violating his civil rights; the city has said it

received a citizen complaint and was bound to investigate. That's how code enforcement works.

"I don't see how this is any different than people having Bible studies or worship meetings in their home," Knudtson wrote on May 4 of last year. "I am aware of other monastic communities and home churches meetings around Vancouver that are not being harassed by the city in the way your letter suggests."

Eiken's June 6 response affirms that "religious institutions are permitted outright" in the commercial district where the house sits. "However, a site plan approval and building permit are required for a change from residential to nonresidential occupancy." A July 2, 2012, letter from Eiken restates that until Knudtson can demonstrate the proper code upgrades — exit signs, fire protection, wheelchair access and so on — the Arnada Abbey may not be used as a religious institution.

City records show the building approved as a single-family home only, Eiken said. Knudtson rents five upstairs bedrooms to needy people; he took a reporter to see the small rooms and communal kitchen and meet renters Sharma and Michelle, a couple of women who said the place had been "a safe haven" for them. Rent is $300 to $400 per month.

Eiken's July 2 letter notes Knudtson's insistence "that the residence is used only for private Bible study and is not being use as a place of public assembly occupancy." Eiken's doubts are obvious, but he nonetheless takes Knudtson's word for it: "Without further information to the contrary, we are for now merely noting for our records your statement that it is being solely used as a single family residence with occasional private Bible study groups by the residents."

An information sheet Knudtson gave The Columbian lays out a schedule of events at the Broadway address, with liturgy and waffles on Sunday morning, vespers (evening prayers) on Wednesday nights and a Friday night 12-step program — plus a movie. The website refers to a May visit by a bishop who offered communion and confirmation and accepted the group into the Diocese of Cascadia.

Eiken told The Columbian his department has bigger fish to fry. "Trying to determine what constitutes a Bible study session versus organized worship would take a lot of resources," he said. "For the time being, our attorneys have advised us to document his position and let him know there'd need to be approvals if there's change of use. It's basically putting him on notice that it's his responsibility."

E-bikes for sale

The Chinese e-bikes Knudtson is selling come in two sizes -- a smaller, 48-volt model that goes for $699 and is best for tooling around Vancouver, and a larger, 60-volt cycle priced at $999 that's best for traveling longer distances -- such as to Portland and back. This reporter took a test drive and found one of Knudtson's e-bikes peppy, fun and easy to master with a little practice.

According to Knudtson's flyer, these vehicles are legally considered "electric-assisted bicycles" because they are light, slow and can be pedaled; their maximum speed is just under 20 miles per hour and their range is limited.

According to Revised Code of Washington 46.61.710, electric-assisted bicycles have the same traffic rights and responsibilities as standard bicycles. They're OK in bike lanes on local roads or multi-use paths, but never on sidewalks or freeways. Furthermore, municipalities have the right to regulate them further, or ban them from areas where there's dense foot traffic.

The bikes are designed with the generally smaller Chinese frame in mind, Knudtson said, and data provided by the manufacturer cite a 135-pound rider. A more realistic American example might be Knudtson's own 280-pound self; his personal experience is that the bigger model has a 22- to 25-mile range and the smaller one has a 13- to 15-mile range, he said.

Clearly, you're not going to be winning races or commuting long distances with an ecomoped. But if you're at least 16 years old and can't afford a car or motorcycle -- let alone the registration and insurance -- this could be a good answer for you, he said. According to Knudtson, a full charge costs pennies and the batteries last for hundreds of charges. Recharging is a matter of plugging into an ordinary wall socket for six to eight hours. The cost to operate is 10 to 15 cents per day, Knudtson said.

Knudtson is aiming his e-bikes at the same people he's aiming his ministry at: people in need. Although his business, Broker Direct Inc., is a for-profit business, Knudtson swore that 100 percent of the profits go to the Arnada Abbey.

"The Arnada Abbey is not in the business of selling e-bikes," he said. "I am selling e-bikes and supporting the Abbey with that money." So far he's sold seven, he said.

According to Eiken, Knudtson was found to be parking e-bikes on the sidewalk outside his live/work condominium at 2416 Main St. He was advised to get a street-use permit if the bikes were offered for sale; he claimed the bikes were not for sale but were his own personal property. He also claimed that the bikes were parked not on the public sidewalk but on a section of sidewalk that's his own private property, due to a footprint mistake that was made when the building was built a decade ago.

"That has been his approach," said Eiken, "but I'm not aware of any anomalies with the building that would affect the ownership of the sidewalk."

Still, Eiken said, the city isn't pursuing the matter. "Frankly this isn't our top priority and we're not planning to spend a lot of city resources on it" -- unless the bikes are blocking the sidewalk, he said.

Anglicanism, USA

And then there's this: Anglicanism? The Church of England? Here in Vancouver, USA?

The Episcopal Church is considered the mainstream American descendent of the historical Anglican Church — but here again, Knudtson is threading a different needle: his group is Anglican, not Episcopalian. According to Anglican Church in North America, there are something like 100,000 Anglicans in North America. That's a tiny movement. Online discussions point out that the sect knows it's tiny and appears to be struggling for unity and recognition.

Knudtson said he grew up in a charismatic Pentecostal church in Southern California and was deeply involved until his mid-30s, when he experienced a "classic crisis of faith" and started questioning Christianity's divisions and schisms across the centuries. This led him to explore "the ancient texts," he said, and to Anglicanism, which he sees as a way to bridge those divisions.

In years past Knudtson founded a "punk rock church" called The Bridge and a "touchy-feely" group called Nameless Church, all of which drew outcasts and misfits to "a crazy wild worship," he said.

His mission is to tend those outcasts and misfits and needy folks, he said.

"I know what it is to be oppressed," he said.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://www.facebook.com/reporterhewitt;http://www. twitter.com/col_nonprofits.