Neighbors at hearing fight church expansion

Baptists seek right to add 1,102 seats, extra parking spaces

February 25, 2000|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

A long-running battle over the expansion of the First Baptist Church of Guilford continued last night at a hearing before the Howard County Board of Appeals.

More than 100 people attended the meeting, at which residents argued against a proposed expansion of the church sanctuary to 1,502 seats from 400.

Some residents say the plan does not fit into their quiet, residential area and could cause traffic congestion and other problems.

"I can't imagine anything that has been more destructive to a community than this battle," said Kari Ebeling, president of the Oak Ridge Homeowners Association, which opposes the expansion. "The church and the community don't speak. We speak through attorneys."

Last night, opponents again voiced their concerns about traffic, the possibility of lower property values, harm to the environment and intensive use of the church property for parking, programs and meetings if First Baptist, in the 7500 block of Oakland Mills Road, is granted the special exception needed to expand.

The Rev. John L. Wright, pastor of First Baptist, said the congregation will continue to fight for what it sees as a badly needed expansion.

"We've been fighting this battle for two years," Wright said. "There has been a lot of uncertainty and inaccurate information in some of these testimonies."

The church had originally planned to expand to a 1,938-seat sanctuary, a community center and 636 parking spaces. Neighbors complained the plan was too ambitious.

Last year, the board approved the original plan, but later withdrew its support and dismissed it.

Church officials reacted by filing an appeal in Howard County Circuit Court, accusing the board of violating its own bylaws by changing its position on the plan. The church withdrew the suit in June 1999 and submitted a new plan with fewer seats, 536 parking spaces and without the community center.

Residents complained that the new plan was too similar; that while the number of seats was reduced, the plan still remains at the original size of 64,000 square feet.

"At a certain point, it stops being a community church and becomes that phenomena known as a mega-church," said Ebeling.

During her testimony, Ebeling also raised the issue of whether the church would need an additional special exception because it is used by the Howard County Chapter of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for meetings.

"If it is built, it will be the largest church in Howard County," Ebeling said.

Jenatte Powell has been a member of First Baptist for 50 years. She said she does not believe residents and the church will be able to reach a compromise.

"We really need this because we are overcrowded at our services," Powell said. "I hope we win."

Residents opposed to the project have also filed a civil suit in Howard County Circuit Court seeking to reinstate the board's original dismissal of the church's request. That case is currently pending.

The hearing before the Board of Appeals is expected to continue next month.

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