Church project is still opposed

Despite approval of scaled-back plan, foes vow to fight on

`I am disappointed'

2nd blueprint too big for the area, some residents believe

July 20, 1999

Residents opposed to the expansion plans of First Baptist Church of Guilford vow to fight on despite losing what appears to be a significant battle.

The Howard County Planning Board voted last week to recommend approval of a scaled-back version of the church's original plan, but critics say it is still too ambitious.

Amid complaints that the original proposal for a 1,938-seat sanctuary and 636 parking spaces was too large, church officials submitted new plans to the Department of Planning and Zoning in February, reducing the number of seats to 1,500 and eliminating 100 parking spaces. The church, in the 7400 block of Oakland Mills Road, now has 400 seats.

"The two plans are substantially different," said James L. Rouse, an attorney representing the church.

But some neighbors, who have expressed concerns over potential traffic congestion if the plan is approved, say they don't see much difference between the two designs. They argue that the scaled-back version is still too large for a residential community and promise to mount an aggressive defense at a hearing before the county's Board of Appeals on Sept. 9. "I am disappointed with their recommendation," said Kari Ebeling, president of the Oak Ridge Homeowners Association, referring to the 3-0 vote of the five-member Planning Board last week. Two members were not present and did not vote.

"I believe this was a done deal from the beginning. It's all political," said Ebeling. "If this was anything other than a black church, the plan would have been denied."

Rev. John L. Wright, pastor of the 96-year-old church, could not be reached for comment. Church officials say they're upset the community has made race an issue.

"We cater to so many nonblacks through our service in the community," said Roger Barnes, a deacon at the church. "This is a cheap shot, and an emotional reaction because things did not go in the direction that they wanted them to go in," he added. "We are obviously thrilled by the decision of the board," Barnes said. "We're glad that they considered all of the evidence which points to a historical involvement in the community."

In addition to reducing the number of seats and parking spaces, church officials also voted in February not to accept a $300,000 state matching grant to build a community center. It is unclear why the church decided to abandon that plan.

In March, lawyers representing the church went to Circuit Court after the Howard County Board of Appeals dismissed the church's original plan after first approving it last September.

The church asserted that the board violated its own by-laws by changing its vote, but the church withdrew its appeal last month, after submitting a revised plan.

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