A mega-church in Columbia has scaled back its controversial expansion plans, from 1,500 seats to 1,000, an attorney who represents the congregation told the Howard County Council last night.
Attorney Richard B. Talkin told the council that church leaders had decided to move forward with the smaller expansion plan, which remains contingent on approval of rezoning for the property. Neighbors have complained that the expansion could overwhelm their community of small homes.
The First Baptist Church of Guilford had applied to rezone its property through Howard County's once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning process. Residents and land-use attorneys offered public testimony last night before the county council on it and other rezoning proposals.
More than 180 applications for rezoning were submitted for consideration last year to refocus the direction of development in the county. Council members expect to vote on the bill potentially changing more than 3,000 acres countywide at their Feb. 2 meeting.
Council members will still accept written testimony, however, until the vote. They will also discuss comprehensive rezoning at three work sessions, which are open to the public on Thursday, and Jan. 27 and 29.
Testimony about late entries to the comprehensive rezoning bill dominated discussion at the hearing last night - and by 10 p.m., with the session continuing, several people had spoken in favor of the church's proposed expansion.
Church member Shirley Young said the expansion would allow First Baptist to "implement church programs that save souls, build character and minimize activities that feed into a society that is livable but confused."
Neighbor Nancy L. Yeroshefsky said she was not opposed to the church or to its activities, but worries that First Baptist could use the new zoning to bypass the public review process in moving forward with the expansion.
"I am not sure what is going to be 25 feet from my backyard," she said.
Church officials have applied to the county for special permission to expand the church building several times in recent years but have been turned down. The century-old African-American church, which predates the neighborhood, has requested "residential senior-institutional" zoning that allows for religious facilities, senior housing, community centers and health clubs - and would allow the expansion without special permission from the county.
Oliver Edwards, a nearby resident who has helped lead the opposition, was pleased by the announcement of the reduced expansion.
"It's something the community has been saying they'd agree to for some time," he said.
Other speakers commented on a new pension-deferral plan proposed for Howard County police officers. If adopted, 25-year veterans on the force could opt to freeze their pensions at that level and receive a lump-sum payment for the additional pension they would have accrued in working three or four more years.
The officers would be able to earn their full salary during those additional years.