MEMBERS OF Riverdale Baptist Church believe that Anne Arundel County Councilman John Klocko III has unfairly targeted their proposed "megachurch" in Davidsonville.
Mr. Klocko is the moving force behind legislation that would require plans for churches with parking lots of larger than 80,000 square feet to have a special hearing before the county's administrative hearing officer. Since Riverdale Baptist is now the only church that meets this criteria, the congregation believes it is being treated unfairly.
Although the debate on the bill has been framed as a question of religious freedom, the real issue regards land use and the county's right to ensure that a property owner doesn't infringe on the character of his surroundings.
Should these edifices with capacious sanctuaries seating more than 1,000, fitness centers and parking lots as large as those found in shopping centers receive special review?
The answer must be yes, particularly since these churches have evolved into operations that go far beyond conventional forms of worship. With active education, counseling and athletic programs, these institutions are becoming seven-day-a-week DTC centers of activity. Even their congregants have to admit they are significantly different from traditional houses of worship.
Location is the other major issue. Since large tracts of land are required for these complexes, they generally are located in rural areas. If a 110,000 square-foot commercial or business structure were to be built on the 41-acre rural parcel, there would be extensive public hearings and administrative reviews. Legitimate questions involving the church's impact on the community need to be explored.
A review would not necessarily deny a church a right to build. It might result in refining the site plan, moving entrances and exits or other modifications to make it more compatible with its surroundings.
To make the argument that a site review and public hearing infringes on religious freedom is a smoke-screen. Since Mr. Klocko is asking for similar reviews for hospitals, private schools and other non-profit organizations, he clearly is not singling out the Riverdale Baptist project. He has raised a legitimate issue.
Pub Date: 10/23/96