Deal would give church chance at higher profile

Parking lot plan part of proposal in Howard

April 22, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

It's no secret that some people go to church on Sundays just to be seen. As it turns out, churches themselves can be equally interested in keeping up appearances.

Consider the battle brewing over a proposed Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse in Ellicott City. Residents opposed to the proposal are wondering, among other things, why community mainstay Bethel Baptist Church is considering a deal with a local developer and the Howard County YMCA to make room for a retail giant like Lowe's.

The answer may surprise some. One of the most appealing things about the deal, church officials say, is that it would give the church room to build a parking lot that is visible from Montgomery Road, to replace the one that is hidden behind the church.

"We've had a number of people come in and say, `We passed by and we didn't think there was anything happening here because there weren't any cars,'" said the Rev. Bruce Romoser, pastor of the 38-year-old church.

The church has a pivotal role in the proposal, which has inspired rallies against the project from some residents, who fear it will worsen traffic on Montgomery Road.

Under the plan, developer J. Chris Pippen would combine 4 acres from the YMCA and 13 acres from nearby homeowners and the church to make room for Lowe's and its 680-space parking lot. The benefits for the YMCA are clear: The estimated $3 million it would earn from the sale will help fund a new facility on 8 remaining acres.

The benefits for the church are less extensive. Under the plan, the church would give up land behind it and to the east in exchange for land to the west - where it could build a parking lot that would be visible from the road. It would also acquire a stoplight for its driveway onto Montgomery Road.

Romoser said the church is far from completing the deal.

When making a decision, though, the location of the parking lot is bound to be a factor, Romoser said. The church's Sunday services draw about 225 people, but the church has room for about 350, he said.

"I think visibility has a lot to do with the product," he said. "It's like a shopping center. If you see one with no cars in the parking lot, you think the stores are closed."

Residents opposed to the deal are critical of that reasoning, saying that there should be better ways to attract congregants than a high-profile parking lot. But other church officials in Howard County affirm Bethel Baptist's thinking, saying that appearances matter in a county with about 100 churches from which to choose.

"It's like a home. What people see from the road says a lot about who you are," said the Rev. Rod Miller of Bethany United Methodist Church in Ellicott City, whose parking lot is visible from Bethany Lane.

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