Church project moves ahead

Board OKs plan to more than triple size of First Baptist

Opponents press challenge

Fall groundbreaking possible on building for 1,500 congregants


June 29, 2000|By Dahlia Naqib | Dahlia Naqib,SUN STAFF

First Baptist Church of Guilford is looking to begin construction by fall on what would be the largest church in Howard County.

Opponents still hope to limit the church's expansion, after a battle that has lasted two years.

Some of the 200 church members at the Tuesday night meeting of the county Board of Appeals prayed, while the board deliberated for an hour and a half before unanimously approving the church's petition for expansion. Its plans call for 1,502 seats and 536 parking spaces.

Neighbors object that the church would be too much for the area of 700 residents. They plan to appeal the decision to Howard Circuit Court, said Kari Ebeling, president of the Oak Ridge Homeowners Association, which led the opposition.

"We don't oppose their growth but [we oppose] the size of their growth," said Ebeling. They were willing to accept an expansion to 1,000 seats.

"You have a massive building with a massive parking lot ... in a residential district," said Thomas M. Meachum, a lawyer for the opponents.

The appeals board did not see the building as an interference with residents' everyday life.

"Meachum's standards may have been a little high," panel member Jerry L. Rushing said. "My neighbor's lawn mower causes a distraction, but that's not the test we apply.

"I think the church traffic will be distracting and a nuisance on occasion but ... will not hinder or discourage the use of adjacent" property, Rushing said.

The approximately 400 residents who oppose the plan say the expanded church would cause traffic congestion and noise, and would lower property values. They declined to comment further.

Church leaders plan to begin construction as soon as they have the required permits, possibly by autumn.

Church leaders and members have been working to expand the 100-year-old church since 1998.

The Rev. John L. Wright remembers preaching to a congregation of 120 people when he arrived in 1972. As the rural area developed, he watched as outhouses and farms disappeared and his church grew.

The 1,800-member church has been in need of an expansion, he said, and the 500 seats aren't enough. Wright declined to comment on the residents' plan to appeal.

Neighbors are worried that with such a large and dedicated membership, the church's activities will congest the intersection of Oakland Ridge and Guilford roads, where the church sits on 9 acres. Opponents say the two-lane roads, which are controlled by four-way stop signs, cannot handle the traffic.

Appeals board members, though concerned with the intensity of the activities, were hesitant to restrict them. First Baptist did agree to limit its events to "religious" ones.

"You have to give great latitude to that definition `primarily used for religious activities.' Just because there's a basketball game in the basement doesn't mean it's a sports center," Rushing said.

"Churches, by their nature and history, are multipurpose centers," said board member Jacqueline C. Scott. "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."

Board members concluded that the "church peak hours" - Sunday mornings and late weekday evenings - would not interfere with "normal peak hours," which are weekday mornings and late afternoons.

The church has been the host of meetings for Howard County's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. William B. Waff, another board member, suggested that the church might need another special exception to hold NAACP meetings.

Wright said the Southern style of the ministry is especially attractive to Baptists. "A lot of it has to do with the attitude," he said. "We have a warm atmosphere and environment."

Members of the congregation come from all over Maryland, and one family continued to attend semiregularly after moving to Toronto.

Wright said a larger church would be beneficial for the members, but he remains focused on its religion aspect. "The mission of the church is to win souls to Christ whether you have one, two or 1,000 members," he said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.