Anne Arundel church leaders say they're worried that proposed changes to the county zoning code would unfairly restrict the size of new churches and would place an undue burden on them to pay for road improvements.
The changes would limit new church parking lots to 250 spaces in residential areas and would require churches to pay for traffic studies when they build or expand, just as commercial developers do.
"We would just like a little more flexibility rather than having the county legislate the maximum size of a church," said Brian Mallare, operations pastor at Bay Area Community Church in Severna Park and a spokesman for a coalition of religious leaders who oppose the changes.
County officials say they're not trying to limit the size of churches or create financial hardships.
Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county's planning director, says the changes are designed to prevent churches from paving over large swaths of rural land and to ensure that they don't create traffic stresses without paying for road improvements.
"It's nothing new for churches to be identified as uses that might be too big for a given area," Rutter said.
Church leaders say one parking space serves about three congregation members, so the proposed change would limit churches to about 750 seats as opposed to about 900 allowed under current rules. Churches would be able to apply for exceptions.
The proposed zoning changes are among the most controversial of hundreds being considered by the County Council as part of a sweeping review of land-use policies. The council is expected to vote on a finalized package of changes early next year but will hold at least one more public hearing before the vote.
The issue is politically touchy for County Council members, who don't want to offend the church community. Both county and church leaders say they want to avoid a conflict.
"We're not in a fight with the County Council," Mallare said. "We just think it's of value to the community to promote the growth of churches."
Council members agreed.
"I don't want to limit the size any more than under the old zoning," said Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican. Anne Arundel is not dealing with any major battles between churches and neighborhood groups. But Mallare said he and other church leaders have taken up the issue because they want to support overall religious growth in the county.
Mallare said 250 parking spaces seems an arbitrary figure that might make sense for a 1-acre church site but not for a 20-acre church site. He said the county could treat churches more fairly by limiting the percentage of property that could be used for parking.
"It's like Joe Rutter just thinks that's the right size for a church," Mallare said. "But to us, it seems prejudicial."
Rutter said he proposed the limits on parking spaces because churches are among the only large-scale developments allowed in rural and residential areas, and neighbors have expressed concerns over the years that large meeting halls and parking lots don't fit the character of such areas. Rutter said he also finds the existing formula for calculating parking hard to work with.
The proposed requirement for traffic studies raises different arguments.
Mallare said churches cannot afford the types of road improvements often required of commercial developers.
Rutter said most churches could probably get by with a letter from an engineer saying traffic would only be heavy on Sunday morning. Only churches planning to run schools or multiple midweek programs would need to do more elaborate studies, he said.