People trying to make their church the largest in Howard County and neighbors who are trying to prevent it agreed last night to speed up proceedings before the local hearing examiner, getting through their five-year history of wrangling over the issue in a mere hour and a half.
This is First Baptist Church of Guilford's third attempt to win approval for an addition on its 9-acre site at Oakland Mills and Guilford roads. The last time, church officials won county approval to expand to 1,502 seats, only to have it overturned in Circuit Court.
Because the new proposal is similar in all respects except one - the church asking for a variance on a height requirement for the building - both sides agreed to limit argument to that change and let the earlier testimony stand.
"I appreciate the cooperation," said Thomas P. Carbo, the county's hearing examiner, who has seen controversial cases drag on for months.
Carbo expects to release a written decision on the church's request in about 45 days.
"We're in a struggle," said the Rev. John L. Wright, First Baptist's pastor, after both sides concluded their cases. "Let's say we are concerned - not happy, but concerned."
Oliver Edwards, a Guilford resident helping to lead the opposition, said the abbreviated meeting made sense because he believes an appeal is inevitable no matter what Carbo decides.
"We just move along," he said.
Wright said the church has about 500 seats and a congregation that has grown to nearly 2,000 people. If the plans are approved, church leaders would build an addition that would cover about 25,200 square feet. The church and a house on the site cover about 6,000 square feet of the 9-acre site.
Oliver, one of a half-dozen opponents who appeared last night, has said before that they would support 1,000 seats but believe First Baptist's proposal for 1,502 is too large for a residential area.
"Their several failed attempts to remain where they are and to try to spread out beyond their borders without success begs the question, is this where God wants them to build?" said the Rev. Lainie Dowell of Columbia, a former First Baptist minister who was barred from the church and has battled Wright ever since.
In a rare moment of drama at a development hearing, all 100 church members who attended the hearing stood up and walked out as Dowell prepared to speak.
The long-running expansion debate began in 1998, when First Baptist leaders asked permission to build an addition that would have brought the church's capacity to 2,000 seats. The county Board of Appeals initially approved the request, then reversed itself before a formal decision was signed. A few weeks later, the board voted again, deadlocked and decided to dismiss the petition.
In 1999, both the church and opponents appealed to Circuit Court, which ruled that the board's dismissal was a denial. While waiting for the judge's decision, First Baptist won approval before the Board of Appeals for new plans that called for 1,502 seats.
Opponents again appealed to Circuit Court, and last year Judge Lenore R. Gelfman overturned the approval.
Petitioners whose requests are denied must wait two years before coming back with a plan that is substantially the same, Gelfman said. She ruled that church leaders reduced their seating in theory only because the second plan calculated more space per seat - 24 inches instead of 18 - but both called for the same number of additional square feet.
Last night, both sides focused instead on building height - whether the church as proposed would be 43 feet or 46 feet tall.