Church withdraws its appeal

First Baptist hopes a scaled-down expansion is OK'd

Foes still fear congestion

Revised proposal to be presented to board July 14

June 09, 1999|By Jamal E. Watson | Jamal E. Watson,SUN STAFF

The long battle over First Baptist Church of Guilford's expansion plans has taken another turn, with the church withdrawing its court appeal of a county administrative decision rejecting the original expansion proposal.

Church officials say they believe they can win county administrative approval of a scaled-back expansion plan, although some area residents remain opposed.

Lawyers representing the church went to court in March after the Howard County Board of Appeals dismissed the church's plan for constructing a 2,000-seat sanctuary, a 636-space parking lot and a 34,000 square-foot-community center on 8.5 acres at Guilford and Oakland Mills roads. The 96-year-old church now seats 400.

For months, the church insisted that the board violated its own by-laws by changing its original vote in September, which approved the expansion, but for now the church has decided to withdraw the appeal.

"We really filed the appeal to protect ourselves," said Robert H. Levan, a lawyer representing the church. "But right now, an appeal is not needed in order for us to expand and to go forward."

Last month, church officials submitted revised plans to the county Department of Planning and Zoning that call for a 1,500-seat sanctuary and 100 fewer parking spaces. The plans are to be presented to the Planning Board on July 14.

For more than a year, residents have expressed concerns about potential traffic congestion throughout the community. While they say they are pleased that the church has decided to scale back its plans, they remain worried that the plans are still too ambitious.

"This area is zoned for a residential community, and we want to keep it that way," said Kari Ebeling, president of the Oak Ridge Homeowners Association. "What they're trying to do is still too much. This community would probably be willing to support something like a 1,000 seat sanctuary."

On a related issue, last month the church's board of trustees voted not to accept a $300,000 state matching grant approved by the General Assembly to build a community center, according to the Rev. John L. Wright, the church's pastor.

In response, residents have been urging state officials to channel the funds instead into Guilford Elementary School, with the county matching the amount.

"We felt that if Reverend Wright didn't need the money, perhaps we could utilize the money in another Guilford entity," said Ebeling. "Our elementary school is one of the biggest draws of support in the community."

School may be beneficiary

Mary Ann Allen, a Guilford resident and member of Guilford Elementary's PTA , said the funds could go a long way toward repairing the school building and providing additional instruction for pupils.

But it is unclear whether County Executive James N. Robey would support the initiative. He was out of the country yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard Democrat who voted against using state funds for creating a community center on the property of a religious institution, said she would consider the idea of redirecting the money to the school.

"I'd be very inclined to support something like this," she said.

Pub Date: 6/09/99

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