Building compromise sought Council moves to ease proposed limits on church construction

September 17, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

The County Council withdrew last night legislation that local religious leaders have criticized as a virtual prohibition on church construction in Anne Arundel County, substituting a less-restrictive but equally controversial measure.

The new bill, which seeks middle ground in a debate involving issues of religious freedom and land preservation, was introduced by Republican council members John J. Klocko III and Bert L. Rice. But in trying to finesse an issue with the political power to fill the council chambers beyond capacity last night, the legislators are running the risk of appeasing no one.

The new measure, a nod to pastors of small parishes looking to expand cramped sanctuaries, would still be a substantial hurdle to the construction of "mega churches," including a controversial 110,000-square-foot Baptist complex proposed for 41 acres in Davidsonville.

"The legislation still hits churches and hinders their ability to grow," said the Rev. Brian Mentzer, pastor of the Riverdale Baptist Church, which has been the catalyst for the legislation.

Preservationists said Klocko should have stuck with his more-restrictive original bill.

"Take away the fact it's God and the Baptists -- it's a complex that should be in a city," said Lou Carter, who has owned 100 acres of farmland near the proposed church site for more than 50 years.

Parish leaders have had a difficult time in Anne Arundel trying to accommodate growing congregations. Property for development is scarce, and land prices high. Last year, 10 churches paid the county Board of Education $224,000 to rent space for services.

Klocko, a Crofton Republican, introduced a bill last month that would have restricted building on rural plots to 15 percent of the total area. The rule would have applied to lots 10 acres or larger. County zoning law now permits buildings to cover 60 percent of property designated for farms or homes.

Land designated agricultural and residential is the county's most plentiful and inexpensive. Church leaders, particularly small-parish pastors, say it is the only property they can afford with collection-plate proceeds. Many complained that the original bill would have prevented them from building or expanding churches on the only land they could buy.

The compromise legislation, which Klocko drafted after consulting County Executive John G. Gary, would not regulate the size of buildings on land zoned for agricultural or residential use.

Instead, the bill would force plans for churches that require parking lots larger than 80,000 square feet to go before the county's zoning officer for a special hearing -- something current law does not require.

"It's more directly focused on the construction of large institutional structures," Klocko said. "It doesn't prevent them from proceeding. It only adds an extra step."

Churches must supply one parking space for every three seats, according to current county law. "Essentially this proposal would accommodate [new] churches of between 600 and 700 seats," Klocko said.

Buildings other than churches would have to appeal to the county's zoning officer if plans required parking lots larger than 40,000 square feet.

The original bill was an attempt to head off the Riverdale Baptist Church, which is trying to move from Prince George's County to U.S. 50 and Davidsonville Road.

Plans include a sanctuary with a capacity of 1,500, a family learning and recreation center, basketball and racquetball courts, and a 700-space parking lot. It has drawn stiff protests from residents concerned about traffic.

The proposal will have to be approved by the county zoning officer if Rice and Klocko's legislation succeeds.

Pub Date: 9/17/96

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