In the rolling hills of Hunt Valley, development is once again a hot issue. Neighbors have launched a petition drive, fired off a flurry of letters and promised a prolonged court battle over plans for a pristine 26-acre tract.
The object of such unholy wrath? A church.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore's plans for a 600-seat church on the east side of Cuba Road just north of Shawan Road has some residents in the surrounding communities wondering whether their neighborhood should be home to a house of God.
"This project will totally dominate the entire neighborhood," saiDr. Barbara Cochran, a resident who has hired an attorney to fight plans for the church. "It will ruin the rural character of this community.
Edward Veilleux, chairman of the building committee for the fledgling St. Francis Xavier Parish, said the church is a necessity. Population growth in northern Baltimore County has meant an influx of Catholics who now face long drives to attend Mass at St. Joseph's Church in Texas or cramped quarters during services at a rented office complex.
The growth is visible in new communities like Loveton Farms, Hunt Valley Station and Mays Chapel North, which in recent years have added at least 2,000 new homes to the area -- many of them owned by Catholics, he said.
"The area continues to grow, and the demand for services far outweighs the capacity," Mr. Veilleux said. "The church has to have the facilities, otherwise what's available will be so remote that people just won't come to church."
Mass is now held at a set of offices in the Executive Plaza office building in Hunt Valley, said Monsignor Thomas Donellan of the Catholic Community of St. Francis.
Mr. Veilleux said his committee looked at eight other properties before agreeing to plunk down $1 million for the tract owned by Hilbert F.Criste that includes two houses and a barn.
Plans call for building a 14,500-square-foot church, converting the main house to church offices and using the smaller house as a caretaker's home. The barn may be used as a community center, he said, emphasizing that the effort is "a community project" involving lay Catholics from the surrounding area.
"The documents all say the Archdiocese of Baltimore, but it's our community that's doing this. It's the people, not just the church hierarchy," he said.
But opponents say the proposal is less than inspired.
They express concern about its impact on traffic and well water. They argued that their community is no place for a house of worship -- at least not one so large that it comes with a 200-space lighted parking lot.
In a community where the average selling price of a house is in the $400,000 range, there also is concern that the project could cause a decline in property values, said Dr. Philip Byrd, a radiologist at St. Agnes Hospital who lives in the nearby community of Greencroft.
Dr. Cochran, who with a handful of neighbors has appealed last summer's approval of the plan by Baltimore County, said the proposed church would dominate the landscape. He compares its size to "the Goodyear blimp laying on its side."
The proposal is being considered by the county Board of Appeals, but a decision may not be made until next fall. Late last week, Dr. Cochran vowed to appeal any unfavorable ruling to the Circuit Court.
"We have no objection to a little country church, but that's not what this is," she said.
Residents also have met with church officials to seek information, spoken with attorneys and written protest letters to county officials.
One area resident, Brian D. Rivers, wrote to say that the church parking lot may bring "unwanted visitors."
And Patricia S. Bowman, apparently fearful that the area could become a nest of churches, pointed out that a Greek Orthodox Church was already being built nearby on Shawan Road.
"Two facilities in such proximity would create numerous problems and disruptions for residents," she wrote.
James and Wealtha Flick wrote to say that if the church is built, "traffic patterns will be significantly altered."
Dr. Cochran added that traffic along Cuba Road, a winding, two-lane country road, could be backed up for miles on Sunday mornings, Saturday nights and "just about any time they have a church meeting or assembly."
But proponents of the measure argue that it's just a church they want to build -- not a toxic waste dump.
Mr. Veilleux said that many residents in Greencroft -- the closest community to the church site -- favor the project because it will mean a stable use for a 26-acre tract that was on the market,
was residentially zoned and could have been developed into home sites.
"We knew there might be some opposition," he said. "The magnitude of it, you can never know ahead of time."