Church expansion plans criticized

Building would dwarf homes and block views of mill, residents say


October 30, 2002|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Neighbors of St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church in Savage are fighting the church's proposed expansion, fearful that the new building will dwarf neighboring homes.

The 11,400-square-foot expansion would increase the seating capacity, enlarge the sanctuary and add a second and third floor for office space and classrooms, church officials said.

In addition, a new facade in the Coptic architectural style would feature an arched entryway with two domed steeples more than 50 feet high.

The residents asked the Howard County Board of Appeals last night to reconsider the hearing examiner's approval of the proposal. A decision on that request is expected next month.

The size of the project alarms area residents.

"It's like finding all these little single-family homes and putting a castle right in the middle of it," said Myrna Phelps, treasurer of the Savage Community Association.

For church members, the expansion would bring their building's architecture in line with their religious traditions.

The Coptic faith is an Orthodox Christian religion established in first-century Egypt. The ancient church helped shape Christianity through its history. For example, a Coptic pope wrote the first part of the Nicene Creed, a statement of Christian belief.

St. Mary is the only Coptic congregation in Maryland with its own building, said Magby Ibrahim, project architect and secretary of the church's board. In 1994, the congregation moved into the former home of the Bethel Assembly of God, a 9,000-square-foot facility at Lincoln and Woodward streets in Savage.

About 150 people, a third of whom are Howard County residents, worship there during Sunday service, Ibrahim said. Only one service can be held because by Coptic religious practice, nine hours must pass before another one can be held on an altar. Most churches have two or more altars but St. Mary's building does not have the extra space.

The congregation hopes expansion of the facility can rectify this. In June, the hearing examiner approved the church's application for a conditional use for a religious facility.

Nearby residents say they are pleased that the congregation is growing, but they disapprove of the size of the expansion.

"We're not against the expansion of the church. We're against the size of the church they want to expand," said Thomas Fincham, who leads Savage Citizens Action, a residents' group which helped bring the concerns to the board. "We feel it's out of place in the community. It's just going to be enormous."

"It's just too big and too big for our area," said Eleanor P. Oakes, a neighbor of the church. "Basically, it is just too pretentious, ostentatious for our little area."

"The church will become the highest peak in Savage," said Corrinne Arnold, acting president of the Savage Community Association. Other residents say the steeples will block views of the Historic Savage Mill.

Traffic is also a concern. Residents worry that increasing the seating from 168 to 216 would restrict access to the fire station on Lincoln Street and tax strained parking.

The hearing examiner did not grant a variance for parking on the west side of the lot that the church had been using. However, conditional use permit plans for a protective wall between the church's property and the private driveway on that side were included.

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