Loyola plan for retreat in Parkton is opposed

College seeks change in agricultural zoning

April 17, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

It was the trees, rolling hills and solitude that attracted Loyola College to 53 acres of forest and farmland in northern Baltimore County as a potential site for the spiritual retreat center that college officials have long hoped to build within a short drive of their Baltimore campus.

But those are the attributes that some farmers and homeowners near the Parkton property worry will be destroyed if the county allows the college to build the center on land zoned for agricultural use.

"The area would be altered forever after they go in," Nedda Evans, an opponent of the project, said yesterday during the first of four scheduled days of testimony before county Zoning Commissioner Lawrence E. Schmidt.

The hearing is scheduled to continue at 9 a.m. Monday in the county courts building. Schmidt must issue a written decision on Loyola's request within 15 days of the hearing's end.

Loyola officials have been seeking property for at least 15 years to build a retreat center for student and faculty outings that they say are integral to their mission as a Jesuit college.

Without a gathering place, the college has bused students as far as a retreat house two hours away in Pennsylvania for a weekend program of prayer services, discussion and reflection on such topics as their freshman year, diversity and social justice.

"Not to get overly preachy, but as a Jesuit institution, the retreats are fundamental undertakings," Terrence M. Sawyer, a special assistant to Loyola's president, testified at yesterday's hearing. He later added that the overnight excursions are "what make Loyola different" from other colleges and universities.

The school also organizes five-day retreats -- Sawyer likened them to "the Cliff Notes of what Jesuits learn in 11 years in the seminary" -- for its non-ordained faculty members.

Two community groups that had fought the project withdrew their opposition yesterday morning and signed an agreement with Loyola that would restrict the college's use of the land if the county approves the zoning exception.

The agreement -- signed by the Maryland Line Area Association Inc. and the Parkton Area Preservation Association Inc. -- would limit construction on the site, restrict building capacities and prohibit use of the center for anything other than Loyola-sponsored retreats and for no more than 160 days a year.

With other opponents complaining at the hearing about potential risks to Parkton's water supply and wildlife, yesterday's hearing-room confrontation was not unlike the resistance college officials faced six years ago during their first attempt to build a retreat center in northern Baltimore County.

Loyola unsuccessfully sought a zoning exception in 1998 to build a facility off Beckleysville Road, just west of Prettyboy Reservoir. The proposal drew stiff opposition from community members who feared that a building billed as a retreat center would become a banquet center and hotel, ruining the area's pastoral setting and endangering trout in a nearby stream.

College officials eventually withdrew the proposal because of the property's access flaws, Sawyer said yesterday in an interview.

Loyola now proposes to build at York and Stablersville roads a 16,000-square-foot center and three dormitories, each with 20 single bedrooms. The property also would have three "meditation nodes" -- small clearings set back in the woods, perhaps with benches, where students could write in journals or contemplate the "life questions" that Sawyer said the retreats are designed to spark.

Farmers, community activists and residents testified yesterday that the retreat center would ruin the rural quality of their country neighborhood, drain their well water and produce unwanted traffic with the trucks needed to pick up trash, deliver food and collect or drop off linens.

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