Official rejects church's plans

Addition would be too big for area, examiner rules

`It is a disgrace,' Wright asserts

Board of Appeals to get case, Guilford pastor says

Howard County

November 18, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

A Howard County hearing examiner has rejected a proposed 25,200-square-foot expansion of First Baptist Church of Guilford, saying it would be too large and too disruptive to the community.

Examiner Thomas P. Carbo denied the church's petition for a conditional use in an order that became public yesterday.

"It is certainly unacceptable, and I think it is a disgrace," said the Rev. John L. Wright, pastor of the church. "The county must get ready to face a fight."

Wright said he sees the decision as a racially motivated attempt to impede the predominantly black church and expressed outrage at the lengthy wait for the decision - which was expected in June.

The church will move promptly to take its proposal to the Howard County Board of Appeals, Wright said.

The church has proposed a 40-foot-tall, two-story structure that would add 1,000 seats and 535 parking spaces. The church seats 500 in its building in a residential area at Oakland Mills and Guilford roads.

In his decision, Carbo wrote that the addition would be "inordinately large in size and intensity," particularly in comparison to other religious facilities in similarly zoned areas.

Carbo concluded the structure likely would dominate the area - consisting mainly of small houses. It would discourage construction, he said, and landscaping would not be enough to offset the noise, light and emissions created by cars using the additional parking spaces.

Also, Carbo wrote that the driveways were too short and surrounding streets were too small to handle traffic for the church at its proposed new capacity.

Wright said he was frustrated by the examiner's conclusions. He pointed to shopping centers being developed in the Guilford area and large houses being built and said the church was treated unfairly.

"When it comes to a church, they have a problem with it," he said.

He added, "The church always fits in with the community. The church is the salvation of the community."

Many who live in Guilford do not agree, seeing the expansion plan as out of step with the residential area.

"I think the outcome is the right one for the neighborhood," Oliver Edwards, a resident who has helped lead opposition to the project, wrote in an e-mail.

"I hope that the church will consider proposing a smaller expansion, one more in harmony with the neighborhood," he said. "Many in the neighborhood have said they respect First Baptist's need for bigger facilities and would support an expansion to 1,000 seats [adding 500 seats], and I think they would stand by this statement."

The church, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last month, has about 1,800 parishioners and expects to grow to about 3,000 in coming years.

It has been struggling to gain approval for an expansion since 1998. A petition to increase the church's capacity to 2,000 seats was dismissed by the Board of Appeals after an initial approval.

The church then received approval for a 1,502-seat plan in 1999, but it was overturned by the Circuit Court.

Robert H. Levan, co-counsel for the church, said that after gaining approval from the Board of Appeals twice and favorable recommendations from the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning three times, "this is the first time we've had a really negative finding."

He hopes the Board of Appeals will back the plan again.

Since the decision is not the final word, "we will just go forward," he said.

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