Church submits rezoning plan in five-year battle to expand

Building would become one of Howard County's largest religious facilities

January 09, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

For more than five years, the 1,800-member First Baptist Church of Guilford has met a succession of roadblocks, from opposition by neighbors to denials by zoning officials, as it sought to expand its building to megachurch proportions.

Now the church has applied through Howard County's comprehensive rezoning process for a designation that would allow the century-old congregation to build the addition without special permission.

"One way or another, the council is really being asked to resolve it," said County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who represents the area.

Community residents remain concerned, however, that the plan to build the 40-foot-tall structure with more than 1,500 seats and 535 parking spaces - making it one of the largest religious facilities in Howard County - would overwhelm their neighborhood.

"I guess the church has failed in three attempts to demonstrate that the size and intensity of the proposed use is appropriate for that site," said Oliver Edwards, who has lived in Guilford since 1996. "I would like the County Council to keep that in mind, that this use has been proposed and it's just too intense for the location."

For almost a year, Howard has re-examined the future of the county's development through its once-a-decade rezoning process. County Council members submitted more than 140 amendments to the bill, which represents more than 170 requests for zoning map changes as well as to the text of the zoning code.

Ellicott City Republican Councilman Christopher J. Merdon submitted the amendment to consider this application. Guzzone also submitted the amendment, but as a pro forma act as council chairman.

"We need to explore all possibilities," Merdon said.

At a public hearing scheduled for Jan. 20, the councilmen will listen to testimony about changes such as First Baptist's that have not been discussed previously. Members hope to vote on the bill at their legislative session Feb. 2.

Under First Baptist's zoning, it must apply to the county for "conditional-use" permission to expand its building on nearly 5 acres of the 9 it owns at Guilford and Oakland Mills roads in Columbia.

The "residential senior-institutional" designation it is seeking, however, would allow religious facilities and community centers to operate - and therefore expand - as a matter of right. It would also permit housing for seniors.

Councilmen David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat, and Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, have submitted amendments that would reduce the setback for religious facility parking in that zone to 20 feet.

According to First Baptist's application, submitted on the Dec. 15 deadline, "the current location represents the best location for it to expand, to serve its members, to have reasonable access and to have a minimal effect on a neighboring community."

The church's pastor, the Rev. John L. Wright, said the expansion would allow the century-old congregation to continue to serve Columbia, which grew up around it. He has said he expects his congregation to nearly double to 3,000 in coming years.

"The babies haven't been born yet," he said.

In this era, the U.S. Constitution still protects freedom of religion, Wright said. And through the years, countless institutions grew out of African-American churches, including universities, and will continue to do so, he added.

"We've been in the past and we're in the present. Now we're looking forward to the future," Wright said.

In November, Thomas P. Carbo, the county hearing examiner, rejected the church's petition, stating that the planned expansion would be more intrusive than other religious facilities in similar zoning.

If granted the residential senior-institutional zoning, there would be no opportunity for public review, Edwards said.

Guzzone said he was reserving judgment until he sees a construction phasing plan that First Baptist's attorney, Richard B. Talkin, indicated would be available by the public hearing Jan. 20.

"I want to see all the facts, and that's our job," Guzzone said.

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