Zoning laws threaten tiny church

November 01, 1992|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

A hand-painted sign on the door to what was once a second-floor bedroom reads "Pastor's Office." A lamp and a Bible sit on the desk inside the small room.

Downstairs, in what was a dining room, is a partially finished platform on which a pulpit could be placed.

But no sermons will be prepared -- and none delivered -- in the frame house in the 4000 block of Penhurst Ave. in the West Arlington section of Northwest Baltimore.

Last week, the city zoning board denied a request by the Rev. William Featherstone, pastor of the Fellowship Rose of Sharon Baptist Church, to convert the vacant single-family house into a church.

The house's lot is too small to meet the zoning requirement for churches and the request for a variance drew opposition from the city, the local community association and some nearby residents.

The church was unaware of the lot size requirement when it purchased the house in June, Mr. Featherstone said. His congregation has not had a permanent home since fire damaged a building the church was renting.

The board action means the church, which had been saving for seven years to buy its own building, is out some $15,000 in renovation costs, said Mr. Featherstone.

It could cost another $8,000 -- money the church does not have -- to restore the property to its previous condition so it can be sold. The church would use the money to purchase another building, he added.

Meanwhile, the 36-member congregation, which has been meeting in Mr. Featherstone's North Baltimore home, has a $497-a-month mortgage on the Penhurst property -- and just $580 left in its treasury.

The 58-year-old pastor conceded Friday that he doesn't know where the congregation will come up with the money, but said, "Through the help of the Lord, we'll get it."

Last December, when a fire forced it out of its rented location on Reisterstown Road, the church decided to buy a building. In June it bought the house at 4007 Penhurst for $49,000, including a $2,000 down payment.

It had already begun extensive repairs and renovations when it was told by a zoning inspector it would need a permit to use the property as a church. The church halted the work pending this week's decision by the zoning board on its appeal for a variance.

Sharon Baptist's application was opposed by the Department of Housing and Community Development, which pointed out the size of the lot was less than half the minimum requirement for a church in a residential area, and the West Arlington Improvement Association, which said it would hamper its efforts to encourage single-family home ownership.

"We want affordable houses for middle-class families. They wanted to convert a house into a church. We have enough of those," said Charles W. Griffin, president of the association.

"I do sympathize with the congregation. But if they had come and talked to us first, they never would have been strung out like this. There are enough storefront churches around if you want to be a Christian," said Nadinea Slaughter, who lives next door to the house the church wanted to move into.

Mr. Featherstone admits that attitude "hurt."

"I believe if you could have churches in every other house, it wouldn't be too many," he said.

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