The architect who prepared plans for a substantially expanded church in the tiny village of Savage said the scale of the building was necessary to accommodate needed additional classroom and office space.
The defense of the planned renovations at St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church came in testimony last night before the Howard County Board of Appeals.
Neighbors of the church have challenged a hearing examiner's approval of the expansion plan with an appeal to the board, saying the enlarged structure would overwhelm the small homes around it.
The 11,400-square-foot expansion would include a second and third floor with offices and classrooms, as well as a facade featuring an arched entryway and two steeples more than 50 feet high, church officials said.
While some community criticism has focused on a proposed 48-seat increase in the size of the church's nave, the architect said other needs dictated the building's scale.
Currently, children attend crowded Sunday school classes, said Magby Ibrahim, architect of the project and church member who serves as the secretary to the church's board of deacons. Noise from social activities in an adjacent room in the current building drowns out lessons.
"If we don't serve them [the children] now we'll lose them very soon," Ibrahim said.
The project was not intended to increase the size of the congregation, but to provide space for future growth, said Pamela Sorota, the church's counsel.
But some neighbors were not mollified.
"It'll dwarf the neighborhood," said Marrianne Fincham, who lives across the street.
"When they create a beautiful building they'll attract" new members, said Dennis Thornton of Savage.
Church members say the size and configuration of their building, purchased from Bethel Assembly of God in 1994, also affects the practice of their religion.
The Coptic faith is an Orthodox Christian religion established in first-century Egypt. The ancient church helped shape Christianity through its history.
St. Mary is the only Coptic congregation in Maryland with its own building, Ibrahim said. About 150 families are members of the church, and many of them are Howard County residents, said the Rev. Guirguis A. Gobrail, the church's priest.
The renovation to conform to Coptic style "will add for (members) spiritual meaning," he said. Right now, "this is not our church."
The congregation is unable to hold a procession through the aisles, Ibrahim said. In addition, the church can hold only one service on Sundays because there is no room to house an additional altar. According to Coptic tradition, nine hours must pass before a service can be held on the same altar.
But neighbors are concerned about the potential for increased traffic from multiple services in a larger nave.
They fear that increasing the seating from 168 to 216 would lead to added parking that would restrict access to the fire station on Lincoln Street.