Church plan shocks street

Md. prerogative overrode county notification rules

Residents decry lack of notice

`We have no jurisdiction,' Arundel official says

March 30, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

For more than 100 years, the residents on Matthews Town Road have shared a family tree and a dead-end street.

Although the biggest mall in Maryland was built less than a mile away, and a state highway was constructed beside them, life on their out-of-the-way road hardly changed. Their children still play football in the street.

"There isn't a car that goes by here that someone doesn't notice," said Ronald Wright, 48, who grew up on the street and lives there with his wife and son. His father owns the home next door. His brother and cousin live across the street. His aunt - who carries the Matthews name - lives around the corner.

They believed the street would remain the same, protected by Anne Arundel County rules designed to curb unannounced sprawl by informing nearby property owners of proposed land divisions.

That's why it came as a surprise last year when Freeda and Leatherwood Thompson - one of the few unrelated families on the road but an unofficial part of the Matthews clan - spotted a man walking around in the woods at the end of Matthews Town Road.

They asked why he was there.

He said he was building a church on their road.

Ever since word of the church spread through the neighborhood, the residents have been struggling to figure out how this happened and how they can stop it.

What they're finding is that the church is about to spring up because of a quirk in the law that allows the state to pretty much do what it wants with regard to subdividing and selling land, even in a county with rules designed to ensure public feedback. Now neighbors probably can't stop it.

The controversy has its roots in 1987, when the State Highway Administration bought a little more than 12 acres just past the dead end of Matthews Town Road. On that land, they built part of Route 100, opening the divided highway in November 1996.

After the road was built, 3 acres were left over.

If a private developer owned 12 acres and wanted to split off 3 of them, he would need to apply to the county, Anne Arundel officials said. The county would notify everyone who lives within 175 feet of the property about the proposed change. It would also send notices about the plan to every community group in the county.

The developers would have to meet what's known as the adequacy-of-public-facilities test. They would have to do a traffic study to ensure that the road - in this case, a two-lane one where the outsides of each lane are crumbling - could handle the increased traffic. If it didn't, the developers would have to make road improvements.

On Matthews Town Road, none of that happened.

"We have no jurisdiction on anybody above us," said Merril E. Plait, the county's assistant planning and zoning officer, referring to the state.

Said State Highway Administration spokesman David Buck, "We don't have anything to do with the subdivision process."

Simply put: The county can't stop the state from dividing land.

Because of that, two common procedures were not followed:

First, the residents on Matthews Town Road were not notified when the state divided the land in 1998, and there was no public forum held to discuss the move.

"As a community, we would have been there," said Terrie Wright, Ronald's wife.

County officials rely upon these meetings to help develop suggested and required improvements - such as requiring buffers and planting trees.

Second, a traffic study was not conducted.

Plait can't say whether a traffic study would have resulted in any required road improvements - such as road widening.

County land records list the property owner as Kingdom Builders Ministries of Hanover.

The Rev. Kenneth Fowlkes, pastor of the incoming church, declined Friday to reveal much about himself or his church.

He said it will be "a regular Christian church."

County officials said he has applied to build a 10,600-square- foot church with about 200 seats and 73 parking spaces.

The church will be built at the end of the street, where it dead-ends into a chain-link fence. Beyond the fence is Route 100.

The houses that dot the street are far from cookie-cutter designs, and each is set back significantly from the road. There are about a dozen homes on the dead-end. There are no sidewalks or curbs. During the record snowstorm in February, the dead end was never plowed; the residents did it themselves with shovels.

While the opening of Route 100 added some noise to the community, it didn't bother them as much as the planned church does, the Wrights said.

The church, residents said, might make highway noise worse. The trees on the church site are the only buffer between the residents and the hum of Route 100 traffic.

"[State officials] promised us they would leave the trees because of the highway noise," Earl Wright, 47, Ronald's brother and neighbor, said. "I wish I had names, but I don't."

Along with the Harman Civic Association, residents said they hope to express their concerns to the county and the builder, but they acknowledge that it's probably too late.

"From what I can see, it depends on who you are and where you are," said Earl Wright. "We're in the wrong place.

"It looks like everything is on their side."

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