County expected to cite church over sign $200-a-day penalty possible because of oversized structure

January 11, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

A Towson-area church's sign could cost it a lot of money.

The Baltimore County zoning department is expected to issue a citation today assessing a $200-a-day penalty against Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church for erecting a sign that doesn't meet zoning regulations.

And by the time the church receives the citation, to be sent by registered mail, it could owe at least $1,800. The penalty is retroactive to Jan. 3, when a zoning inspector followed up on a neighbor's complaint.

"What we're doing is putting a fire under them," James H. Thompson, director of the county's code enforcement division.

Several county officials said they don't want the church's money -- they just want the matter of its illegal sign addressed.

"We're doing the right thing," though "the church has done many good things in the community," said Towson Republican Councilman Douglas B. Riley.

Mr. Riley got involved in March when a church member asked him to intercede with the zoning department so that Brown Memorial, in the 2600 block of Charles St., could build the sign in time for last April's dedication of a $2.6 million sanctuary. The councilman said he was told there was no community opposition.

The zoning department issued a provisional permit -- on the assumption that there are no objections -- and the church was required to file for a public hearing within 30 days. Brown Memorial needed zoning approval because the sign -- a 70-square-foot curved, gray concrete structure, engraved with the church's name -- exceeded the county's 30-square-foot limit.

Provisional permits are rare, with only about 10 a year granted, Mr. Thompson said.

But a neighbor, Page Miller of Buchanan Road, complained to the county about the sign in April, which resulted in a zoning hearing being set for June 7. The church later obtained a postponement, indicating it was working with the community on a new design, Mr. Thompson said.

John Dahne, vice president of the Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Improvement Association, said the community group was told the church wasn't happy with the sign and would replace it with something else.

"We thought, 'Great. We've resolved it,' " Mr. Dahne said.

But the sign was not taken down and replaced -- leading to another complaint.

"We, as an organization, are not trying to control what is going on in the church. We want to act as mediators," Mr. Dahne said.

Though the Rev. Robert W. Lawrence, pastor of the church, has not seen the citation, he said, "We take full responsibility for the sign and will work with the county to get this matter resolved. We're not trying to be obstinate."

Many neighbors who live near the sign have no objection to it. "Personally, my husband and I don't have too much trouble with it. They've landscaped it," said Cheryl Finney of the 100 block of Woodbrook Lane, adding, "At first, it looked like a tombstone."

During the summer, the church planted azaleas and evergreen shrubs around the sign.

Once the church receives the citation it will have two options, Mr. Thompson said. It can stand trial in Baltimore County District Court or request another hearing with the zoning commissioner.

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