Planners recommend church expansion Neighbors voice fears about impact

March 26, 1998|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

After hearing more than an hour of testimony that at times was punctuated by applause and shouts of "Amen," the Howard County Planning Board voted 4-1 last night to recommend approval of an ambitious expansion plan for the First Baptist Church of Guilford.

The board voted in favor of the project despite some members' concerns about the project's size.

The board's action brings the 95-year-old institution a step closer to building what could become the county's first mega-church.

The Board of Appeals is scheduled to vote on the church's request for a special exception April 23. If approved by this panel, construction is set to begin this summer. .

Although the church has been planning a two-story, 2,000-seat sanctuary, community center and 636-space parking lot for more than a year, residents of nearby neighborhoods such as Oakridge have expressed concern in recent weeks about the project's scope.

Church members and officials said the expansion is necessary to provide services to congregants and the community.

According to a petition the church filed with the county Planning and Zoning Board last month, First Baptist wants to enlarge its property by adding six residential properties, which have been purchased. A 55,090-square-foot church would be built on the 8 1/2 -acre site at Oakland Mills and Guilford roads.

"Apparently, this church has done a lot in the community," said Planning Board member Gary Kaufman. "I can see where they would need the space and require this size facility."

People spilled into the hallway from the crowded meeting room last night. Church members often broke into applause or added hearty "Amens" to testimony that endorsed the project.

Residents such as Elisa Roberson said they supported the church's growth and regarded it as a good neighbor. But the proposed level of expansion would have too great an impact on the surrounding homes in terms of noise, traffic and lighting, they said.

"We want the project to happen. We just don't want it to happen in its entirety," Roberson said, speaking on behalf of a group of Oakridge homeowners. "The grandeur of it is just so overwhelming."

Others compared the scope of the project with multiplex movie theaters and large shops such as B.J.'s food warehouse, which was said to have the same amount of parking as the proposed church.

Mary Ann Aellen, whose property abuts church land, said that in terms of seating, "it is three times the size of the new James Rouse theater in Howard County. We just think that's too big for our neighborhood."

But church member Aaron Powell said such comparisons, given the church's programs, were inappropriate. "We're not an arena, we're a church," he said. "A church, an arena, a theater are not the same thing."

First Baptist member William Taylor gave the board a brief church history and talked of growth spurts that brought the membership to 1,400 people. Taylor said the church expects to have 3,000 members by 2010.

But Planning Board member Theodore Mariani, who cast the dissenting vote, said that the project was "a little overcooked" for the neighborhood around it.

"I'm not convinced it has to be that big," Mariani said.

Meanwhile, state delegates from Howard County have introduced legislation in the General Assembly, asking $600,000 for the church's proposed community center.

Pub Date: 3/26/98

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