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Congregants of Armor Bible Church in Orchard Park for decades have gathered for a sunrise Easter service inside the stone-and-timber casino building at Chestnut Ridge Park.

The tradition will come to an end this year.

The popular park building is no longer available to rent for private events and weddings.

It is a policy change for Erie County that came as welcome news to parkgoers who found themselves locked out of the building and its restrooms during private functions.

But it also means groups like Armor Bible Church have been displaced.

“Is this the park service serving the public?” asked the Rev. Douglas Sukhia, pastor of Armor Bible. His church only used the building for a few hours once a year on a typically quiet Easter morning and always kept the service open to anyone who wanted to attend, he said.

“It’s sort of like, for the sake of one or two people, 200 have to change,” he said.

The rental policy for the building was actually changed last year, after County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz took office, but the Parks Department allowed groups and bridal parties that already had secured reservations to continue with their events through 2012. No new reservations have been taken.

The goal, said Parks Commissioner Troy Schinzel, is to keep one of the county’s “crown jewels” open to the public whenever the park is open. Rental fees, he said, didn’t make up for the loss of public access to the building during weddings and private parties.

Easter Sunday might be a slow morning at Chestnut Ridge, but some Saturdays during wedding season can bring hundreds of people to the park who couldn’t use the casino building if it was rented.

“It’s a policy decision, which to me has nothing to do with the financial gains but what you lose by renting it out and making it a private, not-open-to-the-public area,” Schinzel said.

Rental revenue for the Chestnut Ridge casino remained just a tiny portion of the county’s parks revenue. The building, according to county records, was rented 15 times in 2011 for a total of $5,400. The county that year brought in $2 million in revenue through its parks, golf courses and concessions.

That’s a contrast to Marcy Casino in Buffalo’s Delaware Park, where the non-profit Olmsted Parks Conservancy relies heavily on income derived from the building’s rental to support maintenance and care of the Olmsted parks. The organization uses a professional manager and caterer to help facilitate weddings and events.

“It’s a long tradition in Delaware Park to use the Marcy Casino for private functions,” said Thomas Herrera-Mishler, president of the conservancy. “It’s also part of our strategy to raise earned income for the support of the parks.”

At Chestnut Ridge, park users like Julie Francisco of Springville found the previous rental policy for the county-owned stone casino unfair, especially during the busy fall and summer wedding season when the building would sometimes be closed to the public on back-to-back Saturdays. Even after the county said it would keep bathrooms open to the public during private functions, she said, park users often found “closed” signs on the door when wedding preparations were under way.

“I totally understand that the county wanted to raise some revenue from this beautiful place,” said Francisco, who runs with a group in the park every Saturday. “Our problem was that it locked out the public. It’s a public place with public access, and our tax dollars went to renovate it.”

The decision to take the building off the county’s rental list will likely disappoint some brides-to-be.

“It’s a beautiful location,” said Katie Ingraham, who specializes in wedding and equestrian photography through her company, Il Cavallo Photography.

Ingraham has used Chestnut Ridge as a backdrop for wedding portraits. On one wintery day, she had taken a couple to the park for portraits expecting to photograph them outdoors. A private group was using the casino for a race, but she said organizers graciously allowed the wedding party inside.

Sukhia, the pastor at Armor Bible Church, said the church has never had to rent the casino, but instead got special permission to use it Easter morning for free when the building was typically empty.

This year, Armor Bible will move its Easter sunrise service – which Sukhia says has drawn between 150 and 300 people in previous years – to 8 a.m. at its church on Powers Road in Orchard Park.

“We’ll make do,” Sukhia said. “It’s just that, boy, it was a beautiful place to have a service. It was open to everyone.”

email: djgee@buffnews.com