Church size restrictions abandoned

Council backs away from new regulations for houses of worship

Legality questioned

Panel's final vote on overhauled code postponed until May

Howard County

March 28, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Council informally agreed last night not to enact new zoning restrictions on large churches, but postponed until May a final vote on a 114-page bill that would revise county zoning regulations.

County officials decided to back away from the tighter rules for so-called "megachurches" on the advice of officials from Executive James N. Robey's administration, who said a new federal law may have made such restrictions an unconstitutional infringement on freedom of religion.

"This is shaking its way out in the courts," county Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. told the council at a work session on the bill that lasted more than two hours. He offered an amendment that removes all the new zoning language on churches.

"I think that's very appropriate," the Rev. John L. Wright, pastor of First Baptist Church of Guilford, said of the council's action. His church fought a years-long battle over major expansion plans.

Thomas Meachum, attorney for Calvary Lutheran Church in Woodbine, said he, too, was pleased. More than 100 Calvary parishioners attended last week's public hearing on the bill.

Rutter and County Solicitor Barbara Cook said the new federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, is now being interpreted in various court cases, and they advised the council not to mark Howard as a potential legal guinea pig by changing the zoning laws now. The law seeks to protect houses of worship from undue land-use regulation by local governments.

"From a legal viewpoint, we are better off just staying where we are," Cook said.

The council worked through much of the bill last night, but agreed to another work session next month to discuss provisions for a new zoning designation for senior housing.

Zoning law changes reviewed last night are to be voted on Monday night but the bill will then be tabled until May, members agreed.

The bill is the county's first attempt to revise complicated zoning laws after adoption of a new 10-year General Plan late last year.

The measure's most contentious sections would create a "floating" zone to encourage more new housing for active senior citizens, restrict large new projects such as megachurches and day care centers, and change the term for "special exception" to "conditional use" - a move county planners said will make the process clearer to citizens.

Some western county residents are wary of including a provision that would allow helicopters to take off or land from any point at least 100 feet from a property line, on parcels of 25 acres or more. Western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman proposed changing the distance to 600 feet.

The council also agreed to allow any special exception case filed before March 5 - the day the proposed regulations were introduced in the council - to proceed under the current rules.

Although in the works for months, the bill surprised many. While planners said the proposed restrictions on church expansions were designed to make sure small residential neighborhoods weren't overwhelmed, members of Calvary Lutheran in the far west county contended the law would virtually block their smaller project.

They said the proposed tougher setback restrictions would limit them to using only 48 percent of their 5-acre site, instead of the 75 percent available under current rules, making their plan for a new administration building impossible at a time when land for expansion is very expensive.

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