Church postpones hearings before zoning commissioner

Move made to await appeal on building's size

March 16, 2001|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Joseph Duke looks at the 70-acre cornfield near the Baltimore County-Carroll County line and envisions a spacious church where his 1,000 parishioners, who have been without a permanent home for more than a decade, can worship.

Neighbors of the site, at Route 91 and Mount Gilead Road, see Sunday traffic backups, the loss of precious farmland and a view marred by a building nearly the length of a football field.

Baltimore County Zoning Commissioner Lawrence E. Schmidt granted zoning approval in 1999 for a 1,500-seat sanctuary for the Carroll Community Church with classrooms, an athletic field, a lodge with sleeping accommodations and 300 parking spaces.

The church and the community have appealed that decision to the county's Board of Appeals. The church wants a 2,000-seat church; neighbors want 500 seats.

Yesterday, the church agreed to postpone five days of hearings before Schmidt on the development plans until the board completes its deliberations March 27.

The project has sparked opposition from county planners, environmental officials and community leaders, who are upset over its size and location.

The building is the third large church planned in recent years in Baltimore County. Schmidt is reviewing development plans for a 3,000-seat church in rural Granite. Community members there fear the project will cause traffic snarls and drain their wells.

In October, Grace Community Church broke ground on a 500-seat sanctuary in Kingsville, another rural area of the county. The congregation now worships at Perry Hall Middle School.

Duke's nondenominational Christian congregation, which holds services at Liberty High School in Carroll County, has grown from 25 to 1,000 parishioners since 1987. He describes criticisms as "very overstated," saying, "We've hired traffic experts to show there's minimal impact on road traffic."

He notes that the 70-acre lot where the congregation wants to build is in an agricultural zone, where churches may be built if the zoning commissioner approves a special exception.

But county officials filed reports last month objecting to the development plans.

Planning officials wrote in a memorandum that the "overall length [340 feet] and mass are unlike any structures in the neighborhood and do little to preserve the open character of the view."

Administrators from the Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management said: "This project takes a significant amount of productive crop land out of production forever."

They also noted that the building site is sandwiched between a Baltimore County rural legacy area, which is protected from development, and rural land that Carroll County officials want to protect.

The church "imposes an incompatible, large scale urban facility in a rural community," environmental officials wrote.

Church lawyer G. Scott Barhight noted that the church has permission to build on the land and that "the county cannot make anyone farm."

Although Schmidt ordered the church to submit designs for a 1,500-seat sanctuary, two plans have been offered -- one for 1,500 seats and another for 2,000 seats in case the church wins its appeal. Barhight and Duke said a balcony with 500 seats would be built if the larger project is approved.

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