Congregation cuts back on 'megachurch' plans Riverdale pastors outline a smaller version of $10 million complex

February 19, 1997|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

A Prince George's County congregation has removed the "mega" from its proposed church complex in Davidsonville to meet new county rules targeting large projects planned on rural land.

Davidsonville residents immediately denounced the revised plan as a ruse by Riverdale Baptist Church leaders, who for five months have waged an unsuccessful and expensive campaign to build a $10 million complex.

Riverdale pastors outlined yesterday a new project 34 percent smaller than the one originally envisioned. The proposal no longer includes what the church calls a family life center or basketball and racquetball courts, elements that outraged many Davidsonville residents, who said the 112,000-square-foot complex was more a traffic-generating amusement park than a country chapel.

Plans still include a meeting hall and a 1,500-seat sanctuary.

"We enter this crucial time of healing with a plea to understand that our intent has always been to be a blessing, nothing more," Riverdale Pastors R. Herbert Fitzpatrick and Brian C. Mentzer wrote in an "open letter to the community." "We sincerely believe we will be a good neighbor and an asset to the community."

The letter, titled "Church Seeks Healing With Community," was meant to conclude an unusually bitter debate that featured Davidsonville residents denouncing ministers as big-money "outsiders" and the ministers calling a suburban community anti-church.

"They want to come in, become a part of our community and assume that we won't oppose them in the future," said Tracie Hovermale, a Davidsonville resident. "It's not honest, straightforward dealing."

The scaled-back plan calls for less than 100,000 square feet of parking on the primary building site. A smaller lot to handle excess parking would be built on an adjoining property, which Riverdale advocates say should be subject to new county regulations.

"We're trying to strike a balance," said Edward O. Wayson Jr., the Annapolis attorney representing Riverdale. "We've complied with the statute in every way."

But Davidsonville residents say that putting the parking on two properties is a tricky way of skirting zoning rules designed specifically with Riverdale in mind. They also fear that Riverdale, which has a $1 million annual budget, would try to add to its complex later on.

John A. Morris, a spokesman for the county's Planning and Code Enforcement Office, said that "at first blush, it looks like the two lots are being treated separately. That will be addressed as part of our review."

Last year, the County Council approved legislation requiring Riverdale and other projects planned on rural land that need more than 100,000 square feet of parking to receive special permission.

Facing substantial community opposition, Riverdale leaders did not think they would receive a waiver to build the complex planned for 41 acres at U.S. 50 and Davidsonville Road.

By rearranging the parking, Riverdale might no longer need special permission to proceed, even though the number of parking spaces has declined only slightly, from 700 to 615.

Last week, church leaders applied for grading and construction permits that county planners will review over the next few months.

"They've circumvented the intent of the law," said Shari Richey, a Davidsonville resident. "Our same concerns are still there -- traffic, drainage. If they want to come in here, they have to come in beneath the special exception."

Church leaders are confident that their new plans will meet county standards, even though eliminating the two attractions could complicate Riverdale's efforts to increase its congregation and collection-plate proceeds.

"By stretching it, we think we can make it work," Fitzpatrick said.

Pub Date: 2/19/97

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