Neighbors fight church expansion First Baptist plans to build large church come under fire

Public meetings scheduled

Pastor defends project

both sides complain of lack of communication

March 24, 1998|By Jill Hudson | Jill Hudson,SUN STAFF

Members of the Oakridge community in Guilford are gearing up for what promises to be a furious fight over the proposed expansion of the First Baptist Church of Guilford -- an expansion that would create Howard County's first mega-church.

The church's plan for expansion has been in the works for more than a year, but met little organized community resistance until late last week, when a sign was posted outside the county Office of Planning and Zoning in Ellicott City announcing a series of public meetings about the church's expansion. One of the meetings is scheduled tomorrow.

Now Guilford residents say they will oppose construction of the two-story, 2,000-seat church, community center and 636-space parking lot at Oakland Mills and Guilford roads, where the church is now.

"We strongly believe that the [proposed] church is great for a commercial area but not for a residential one," said Mary Ann Aellen, who lives on Ridgeview Drive and whose property abuts church land. "It's totally inappropriate to build something that large here in our neighborhood."

An angry Rev. John L. Wright, pastor of First Baptist Church of Guilford, said opposition to the proposed expansion is coming from a small segment of a community that his church has served since 1903.

"There is not a lot of opposition to this plan coming from the community," said Wright. "It's just the people who live close to the property."

State delegates representing Howard County have introduced legislation in the General Assembly requesting $600,000 for the church-sponsored community center, which would be used as an educational and recreational facility open to the public.

Church officials have said that they plan to match state funds with donations from church members.

According to Aellen, some Oakridge residents are concerned that church officials have not asked community members outside First Baptist Church to be on a church board or committee designed to discuss issues about the expansion.

People who live close to First Baptist know that the church "needs a bigger building and better parking," she said. "But they don't need that big a church -- it's just huge. They could cut the size of the project in half. We Catholics tend to have another Mass instead of having a bigger church. I'd suggest adding another service on Sunday."

"I want to make one thing crystal clear: I'm not gonna let white folks tell us how to run this church," Wright said in response. "We're not going to tell them how to run their houses. White folks can't be in control all the time.

"And they say that we're trying to sneak around with this -- ain't nobody sneaking around behind their backs," Wright continued. "One year ago, we sent out 2,000 pieces of mail and only two or three people showed up to the meeting. No one cared enough then to come."

Last year, several Howard delegates expressed concern that state funds would be used to build a church-run structure, arguing that a state-supported, church-run community center would violate the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

Church officials said growth in and around Guilford has been the catalyst for the church's proposed expansion.

According to a petition filed by First Baptist Church of Guilford to the county Planning and Zoning Board in February, church officials want to enlarge their existing property by incorporating six more residential properties, which have been purchased. A 55,090-square-foot church would be erected on the 8 1/2 -acre site.

The parking lot would be surrounded with landscaping designed to buffer the facility from surrounding houses.

Oakridge resident Karin Hanger said residents are worried that the expanded church would create impossible traffic jams in the neighborhood during Sunday services and that parking would overflow onto residential streets.

Aellen agreed and said the "size of the church and the size of the parking lot are way more detrimental than any value of the community center. We also don't know whether or not it's really true that everyone will be welcome to use the community center."

Hanger said a large community center brings more worries than just traffic and parking. "If they're going to bring troubled youth to be in front of my house from a mile away, to me, that's inappropriate," Hanger said.

"We don't know if they'll be sheltering homeless people or serving welfare recipients," added Aellen. "We just don't know because they haven't communicated with us."

The lack of communication goes both ways, Wright said. "They've never made an effort to get to know us, either."

"So many people say, 'We don't have nothing against the church; we just want to be involved," Wright said. "First, it was the parking lot that they didn't like; now, it's the character of the church. If you want to find out about this church, come to a service on Sunday. We have three every Sunday."

Pub Date: 3/24/98

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