Changing times, changing zoning

County will seek balance among homes, day care, churches

January 28, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Time was, people went to church Sunday morning, and Sunday morning only.

But these days, Howard County's larger churches are as busy as a community college. Bethany United Methodist Church in Ellicott City offers "couples' night" on Fridays; healing services on Wednesday nights; nursery school sessions and meetings of Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Alcoholics Anonymous during the week; and Celtic spirituality classes, due to start in March.

Times have changed, and Howard County officials are trying to catch up. After watching one church expansion after another run into opposition from neighbors, the county is overhauling its zoning rules to take into account the busier, seven-day-a-week nature of many places of worship.

Religious facilities aren't the only targets of the planned rule revisions, which will be the subject of a Planning Board public hearing tomorrow night. The county has proposed tighter regulations for, among other things, day care centers and sports complexes - places that once seemed natural fits for residential neighborhoods but have grown in ways that were unimaginable when the county's zoning rules were last reviewed 34 years ago.

"What was thought to be a minimal use is now a huge, mega use that's not right for a residential neighborhood," said Planning Board Chairwoman Joan C. Lancos. "The regulations are not meeting the needs of the community."

Stricter guidelines

Under the proposed rules, places of worship and day care centers with more than 30 slots would be able to move into or expand in residential neighborhoods, but within much stricter boundaries: The county will require 50-foot setbacks between building lines and property lines, although 20-foot buffers could be permitted if there isn't room for more and if sufficient screening is provided for neighbors.

Under existing rules, churches and day care centers are able to qualify for "special exceptions" in residential neighborhoods as long they meet the standards required of homes, which generally call for 10-foot setbacks between buildings and property lines. (The county can require churches to have somewhat larger setbacks, depending on height.)

In a string of recent zoning disputes, county residents have argued that such permissive standards are archaic in an era when some churches draw upward of 1,000 people some Sundays, and when day care centers are built to tend 200 children a day. With such weak regulations on the books, neighbors say, they have been losing zoning battles against projects that will overwhelm their areas.

In June, the county Board of Appeals approved First Baptist Church of Guilford's plans to more than triple its size to 1,502 seats and 536 parking spaces. This month, the board approved Bethany United Methodist Church's plans for a $2.5 million expansion of its classroom and office wing, and its parking lot - over neighbors' objections that additional traffic will make narrow Bethany Lane more dangerous.

The Methodist church's plans include a new entrance driveway that will run from Postwick Road past a small ranch house owned by Lynn Sparrow, who has been a congregant at the church for the past 35 years.

"I'm going to be crammed in," said Sparrow, who attends the church Sundays but did not contribute to the fund-raising drive for the expansion.

The Rev. Rod Miller, the church's pastor, said it was "difficult" for the church to upset its neighbors, but that the doubling in church attendance during the past seven years - to more than 500 per week - has made expansion necessary. While the county's growing population has increased attendance, he said, its booming real estate prices have made it impossible for the church to relocate to a larger lot.

"Howard County draws a lot of young families who are looking for a way for their children to be bolstered, for support in what they are trying to do with their children," Miller said.

Growing need for child care

The same demographic trend has forced an increased demand for child day care. When the county rules were written, day care typically meant a woman looking after a few local children in her home; now the county has 25 day care centers with more than 100 spaces, and three with more than 200.

For the past several months, Hollifield Station residents have attended Board of Appeals hearings to oppose a 200-child center proposed by Florida-based Tutor Time Learning Systems Inc. in their Ellicott City neighborhood. A smaller center would be welcome, neighbors say, because they could send their own children to it, but a large center would draw more traffic than their small residential streets are meant to handle.

"Appropriately sized centers will blend in, but this mega, in-a-box-type center plopping down in the middle of a residential area, six times bigger than a home, looks out of place," neighbor Linda Dombrowski said.

Under the new rules, day care centers with more than 30 slots would have to have direct access to an "arterial" road, a requirement Dombrowski says is long overdue.

"Day care is a big business, and the only way to make money is to have more children," she said. "Businesses saw the opportunity before the county saw what was going to happen."

Land-use lawyer Thomas Meachum, who is Tutor Time's attorney, agreed that county rules needed some updating, but warned against making the regulations too restrictive. "People still need to go to churches and day care centers," he said.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county's deputy director of planning and zoning, said the new rules, which will be considered by the County Council in March, take that into account.

"The intent is not to try to make it more difficult" for places of worship and day care centers, she said. "It's to see where there's flexibility in ways ... that's more compatible with neighborhood areas."

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