Exemption for churches is defeated Council votes down amendment to zoning bill

Vote is 5-2

Baptist parish seeks to expand in rural area

November 05, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

The County Council declined last night to exempt churches from a controversial zoning bill that one council member said "pits Christian against Christian."

North County Democrats George F. Bachman and James E. DeGrange sponsored an amendment that would have allowed a Baptist parish to proceed with plans to build a 110,000-square-foot complex in rural South County without submitting to additional public scrutiny.

Under separate legislation being considered by the council, Riverdale Baptist Church would need permission from the county's administrative hearing officer before building a 1,500-seat sanctuary, recreation and learning center, basketball and racquetball courts and a 700-space parking lot on 41 acres in Davidsonville.

Riverdale would not need permission to build the project under current law.

The bill would affect all church construction on rural land if plans call for parking lots larger than 100,000 square feet, more than two acres of blacktop. That threshold was raised by the council last night from 80,000 square feet. County law requires a church to provide one parking space for every three seats.

"I keep hearing that this legislation is not about churches," DeGrange said to a packed Arundel Center hearing room. "If that's the case, then let's remove churches."

The proposal was met with shouts of "Get lost" and "Don't be so naive" from some of the 300 people in the audience, which was dominated by Davidsonville homeowners who lined up for seats more than an hour before the hearing.

Who gets into the 215-seat hearing room has become a political game. Last night, supporters of Bill No. 93-96, wearing green ribbons on their lapels, beat out Riverdale partisans who wore pins that said "93-96" with a slash through it.

Council Chairwoman Diane R. Evans, an Arnold Republican, threatened to clear the room if the heckling continued. Minutes later, the council defeated the amendment on a 5-2 vote to resounding applause.

"It's a balancing act," said Councilman John J. Klocko III, the Crofton Republican who drafted the legislation. "A balancing of community needs, legislative intent, property rights and traffic concerns."

In recent weeks, Riverdale's proposal and Klocko's bill have divided the growing South County community and transformed pastors into political strategists to sell what could be a $6 million project.

Through direct mail and radio talk shows, Riverdale leaders have rallied smaller county congregations to pack hearing rooms to oppose a bill they have cast as an assault on religious freedom.

Last night, the council made 11 changes to the legislation, including increasing the parking lot size that "triggers" mandatory approval from the administrative hearing officer. The FTC council will begin reviewing the new version of the bill in two weeks.

The legislation could also affect hospitals, service organizations, country clubs, private schools and other institutions.

The council amended the bill last night to require approval for such projects that call for parking lots larger than 50,000 square feet, an increase of 10,000 square feet.

Riverdale Baptist Church, located in Prince George's County, wants to move into a complex planned for the corner of Davidsonville Road and Route 50 within two years.

If the law passes, Riverdale would need permission from the county administrative hearing officer to proceed. Church leaders do not believe that would be easy to get because many Davidsonville homeowners oppose the project because of its size.

Klocko has said his intent is to strengthen the community's voice in planning large projects on rural land, which accounts for one-third of the county. Such property is among the least expensive in the county, making it affordable for small churches.

Anne Arundel pastors have argued that the bill would stifle plans to build new sanctuaries or expand existing ones. Last year, 10 churches paid the county Board of Education $224,000 to rent space for services.

Pub Date: 11/05/96

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