Schools' land-swap pact to be signed

Action will clear way for construction of church in Columbia

February 11, 2007|by a sun reporter

A contract involving a land swap totaling 51 acres is expected to be signed immediately, clearing the way for construction of a church in Long Reach village and most likely a middle school to serve the burgeoning western section of the county.

The deal barely survived a critical test when the Planning Board approved an amendment increasing modestly the amount of land the church could consume, and leaving the door open for another adjustment if it can be justified.

The increase, to 15 percent from 10 percent, was a far cry from what St. John the Evangelist Baptist Church had hoped for. But Joyce Henderson, chairman of the church construction executive committee, declared it sufficient.

"I understand what their dilemma was," she said after the meeting Thursday night. "We're pleased."

Henderson said she expects the contract with the Howard County school system to be signed within days and that the deal should be finalized in 60 to 90 days.

The agreement stipulates that the school system will transfer ownership to the church of 10 acres along Tamar Drive - at Locust Park near Route 175 - in exchange for 41 acres on Marriottsville Road, near U.S. 40.

The Planning Board first had to amend the final development plan for Columbia to add "religious activities" to the permitted uses on open spaces. But that approval came quickly.

The pivotal issue was whether to permit the physical structure of the church to use more than 10 percent of the property.

The church had hoped for a new ceiling of 25 percent, and board member David Grabowski said he supported that change.

But a majority of the Planning Board, while acknowledging that the current cap was too restrictive, signaled quickly that it was uncomfortable going that far.

"I agree that moving off the 10 percent mark is a good idea," said Chairwoman Tammy J. CitaraManis. "But we need to be broader in our scope. ... I'm not willing to go that high."

Board member Linda A. Dombrowski said, "Ten percent doesn't work. So any other number is arbitrary - you just don't know. I also don't want to kill the deal."

In a departure from custom, the Department of Planning and Zoning did not make a formal recommendation on whether the amendments should be approved.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the department, said, however, that churches outside Columbia are permitted to consume 25 percent of the land in residential areas and face no restrictions in nonresidential areas.

As a compromise from approving the church's request and leaving the cap unchanged, the board settled on 15 percent but said the church may come in later and seek an adjustment if the additional increase can be justified.

The 10-acre parcel in Long Reach is unsuitable for a school, a representative of the school system said.

The property off Marriottsville Road, however, would be ideal for a middle school to serve students, said Joel A, Gallihue, manager of school planning for the school system.

Many of those students live in two planned communities that are expanding, Turf Valley and Waverly Woods.

Henderson said the church was "prepared to launch our building process" on its property on Marriottsville Road when the school system suggested the land swap.

She said the church was founded in Columbia and is eager to return its roots. The church has a congregation of about 400 families, 11 percent of which live in Long Reach and 70 percent of which live in Ellicott City.

The congregation is growing, Henderson said, and the church needs new facilities.

Although plans have not been developed for the 10-acre site, Henderson said, it is likely that a 400- to 500-seat church will be built. The facility would also include classrooms, administrative offices, a fellowship hall and perhaps a multipurpose room for youth activities and other functions.

The Planning Board also approved site development plans for:

Construction of 40 single-family, attached homes in Emerson, a 570-acre planned community near Gorman Road and Interstate 95. The project is being developed by General Growth Properties Inc.

When completed, Emerson will provide about 1,200 residences, commercial offices and retail and 215 acres of open space.

A six-pump Costco gas station in Gateway Overlook, a large residential and commercial project, bounded by Route 175, Route 108, Lark Brown Road and Old Waterloo Road, on the edge of Columbia.

The station will be adjacent to a previously approved Costco membership retail warehouse, and will be limited to Costco credit-card members.

Gateway Overlook also is being developed by GGP.

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