Final hearing held on church

First Baptist would be county's largest if expansion approved


June 28, 2000|By Dahlia Naqib | Dahlia Naqib,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Board of Appeals held the final hearing last night on a proposed expansion that would make First Baptist Church of Guilford the county's largest.

By 10:45 p.m., the board had not reached a decision.

More than 100 members of First Baptist, led by the Rev. John L. Wright, attended the hearing.

A decision was not available at press time. Board members seemed inclined to approve the plan, but expressed reservations during deliberations.

First Baptist has proposed expanding to 1,502 seats and 536 parking spaces on the church's 8 acres in the 7500 block of Oakland Mills Road.

The proposal was submitted to the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning, which approved the plan, and was being considered as a special exception by the county Board of Appeals.

First Baptist has 400 seats and 1,800 members and has been seeking permission to expand since 1998. Many neighbors oppose expansion because they fear it would cause traffic congestion and noise, lower their property values and harm the environment.

If expansion is approved, residents will appeal to the Howard County Circuit Court, according to Kari Ebeling, president of Oak Ridge Homeowners Association.

Board member Jerry L. Rushing doubted that the church's proposed expansion would significantly affect the community. "The church traffic will be distracting and a nuisance on occasion, but [the opposition's] standards may have been a little high. Legally, it will not hinder or discourage the use of adjacent" property, said Rushing.

Residents are also concerned that the church will hold too many activities for the community of 700.

But board member Theresa C. Scott was hesitant to restrict the church's activities. "Churches, by their nature and history, are multipurpose centers. We would be on tenuous territory if we restrict it ... and would begin to create a standard that is not within our realm to create," said Scott.

But board Chairman Robert Sharps expressed concern with the intensity of the activity that could accompany such an expansion.

Residents, according to Ebeling, are willing to accept an expansion to 1,000 seats. "We have no problems with increasing what's there now," said opposition lawyer Thomas M. Meachum. "What we object to is the scope of what's being proposed."Wright, who has been First Baptist's pastor for more than 25 years, remembers when the congregation fit comfortably into the church but a bigger sanctuary has been needed for some time, he says.

In the first expansion proposal in 1998, the church asked for 1,938 seats, 636 parking spaces and a community center. The Board of Appeals approved the proposal, then withdrew approval when board member George A. Layman, who had sided with the church, changed his vote, then decided not to vote, creating a tie.

In July, Wright submitted a new proposal, eliminating the community center and reducing the number of seats and parking spacing. Neighbors remained unhappy, arguing that the revised proposal was as problematic as the original.

"We don't oppose their growth, but the size of their growth," said Ebeling.

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