Church clears appeals board First phase OK'd for Kingsville proposal despite neighbors' fears

One small exception

County planning board must weigh impact on nearby historic site

October 14, 1998|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Brushing aside major objections from the community, Baltimore County officials have found little reason to hold back a so-called "megachurch" in Kingsville, a rural area of the county. The 42,000-square-foot worship center is planned by Grace Community Church.

Community concerns about the impact of the proposed 500-seat church on traffic, wells and septic service have been adequately addressed, the Baltimore County Board of Appeals said yesterday.

But the three-member panel gave opponents of the project a small, technical victory by agreeing that the case should go to the county Planning Board to determine whether it will have an adverse impact on a nearby historic building.

Residents said they were happy that the ruling buys them time to negotiate with the church for a more acceptable plan.

"We didn't win any big coup, but it did seem favorable to the community," said Nancy Hastings, immediate past president of the Greater Kingsville Civic Association. "Maybe it would be in everyone's interest to sit down and reach an agreement."

Grace Community Church's plan, in the works since 1996, was one of the first megachurch proposals to be considered for rural Baltimore County.

The church has asked to build a two-story worship center at Belair Road and Cheryl Avenue that could be expanded to 900 seats. The building would include classrooms, offices and a gymnasium, and the project would include parking for 244 cars.

The proposal helped push the Baltimore County Council to consider a bill in 1996 to severely limit the size of new religious buildings in rural areas. The bill was withdrawn, however, after religious leaders called it too restrictive.

Since then, a number of churches have considered building large sanctuaries in the county.

Baltimore's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church is hoping to build a 3,000-seat sanctuary on a site near Granite. Carroll Community Church, based in Eldersburg, is looking at 65 acres for a sanctuary and retreat at Route 91 and Mount Gilead Road. Both have drawn community opposition.

Most recently, Loyola College announced plans to build a retreat center off Beckleysville Road in Baltimore County. Residents in that area are looking at the proposal.

Grace Community Church, a nondenominational evangelical church with membership of about 200 families, originally asked the county for permission to build a sanctuary and several buildings on the 16-acre parcel it purchased.

Responding to community opposition, the church scaled back its plans last year and redesigned its worship center, changing it from a dome-shaped building to a more traditional gable-fronted church.

In July, county hearing officer Timothy M. Kotroco approved the first phase of the project, a 500-seat sanctuary, but said the church would have to petition for a new hearing if it wanted to build the 400-seat addition.

The church and the opponents took the decision to the county Board of Appeals. The church protested the requirement for a new hearing if it wanted to expand. Residents argued that the hearing officer erred by failing to consider whether the large structure was compatible with the community.

In its oral deliberations yesterday, the Board of Appeals said Kotroco acted within his authority to approve the plan with the restrictions.

But the board said he should have sent the project to the Planning Board because the church would be built within 1,000 feet of Gruppy Hollow, a 19th-century stone building that is on the county's protected Landmarks List.

Although John McGrain, county historian, testified before the hearing officer that the historic site would not be affected by the church, the Board of Appeals ruled that it is the Planning Board's role to make that determination.

Lawyer John B. Gontrum, who was representing the church, called the referral to the planning board "a blessing in disguise. We can get it resolved on this level rather than having it go to appeal."

Pub Date: 10/14/98

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