Church finds expansion proposal a hard sell

Bethel Korean Presbyterian officials questioned at meeting

Request for a zoning change is at issue

Ellicott City

February 16, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Leaders of Ellicott City's Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church tried to persuade their neighbors last night to support a zoning change that would allow a major expansion, but it was a hard sell for the more than 100 people who attended.

The Rev. Walter Lee, who conducts Bethel's English-language services, said church officials were taken aback by the community's negative reaction to their request at a Jan. 25 County Council zoning hearing and are determined to regain their trust and forge new connections with the neighbors.

Several church leaders promised last night to submit limits on their plans in legally binding covenants; apologized for traffic congestion and said changes are under way; and assured the residents that the expansion plan is to satisfy current needs -- not pave the way for more growth.

Residents have said they were surprised to hear about the proposed zoning change before church leaders showed them any detailed plans, and they are opposing the zoning change.

"We are very sorry for the increased traffic and the fears for safety," Lee said, welcoming residents to use church facilities and to come for worship or friendship. The 2,000-member congregation is so crowded on Sundays that four consecutive services are required, and 500 children attend Sunday school in four large, portable classrooms.

The proposed building would allow worshipers to linger and have lunch, officials said. Vehicles now stream out after each service onto narrow St. Johns Lane.

"We do care about your concerns and issues," said Dwight Im, a church-expansion committee member.

Quartet and dessert

But even a classical music quartet performance and sumptuous dessert buffet in the church lobby hardly dulled the edge on questions aimed at church officials last night.

"I have a 6-year-old son who was almost struck by a congregant, who sped off. His 12-year-old sister saved him," said an emotional Tom Riggins, 41, who lives next to the 28-acre church property in the 3100 block of St. Johns Lane.

"It breaks my heart to be up here. I am a true believer," he said, accusing the church of "unconscionable" behavior for failing to inform the community of the building plans before seeking county approval for a zoning change.

Bill Spencer, 41, a big man wearing a sleeveless denim jacket labeled "Bikers for Christ," wondered what would keep a planned gymnasium from being converted to a second sanctuary in the future, and others asked about possible future expansion on the land.

`A speedway'

"St. Johns [Lane] is a speedway," said Angela Ballard-Landers, who lives across the street. "There's going to be more traffic," she said.

Church architect Charles Alexander said the plan is to build a two-story, 85,000-square-foot building to house 42 classrooms, a gym, kitchen and assembly rooms. About 350 more parking spaces would be added along the western edge of U.S. 29, north of U.S. 40. The church's 40,000-square-foot chapel is too small for the congregation -- now nearly triple the 700 members when it was built in 1988.

Bethel's rezoning request is among 41 issues referred to as "Comp Lite" by county officials because they represent land-use changes held over from last year's countywide comprehensive rezoning. The council is planning to vote on the issues March 7.

Right of appeal

Residents argue that a zoning change would allow the church to build anything that category of uses allows -- from a nursing home to a day care center -- without further community scrutiny or right of appeal.

They want church officials to use another zoning process called a conditional use that requires public hearings on detailed plans and allows the county to impose restrictions on the expansion.

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