Church vote put off

Lothian project, lawsuit at stake

November 20, 2008|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,chris.guy@baltsun.com

In the latest turn in a four-year struggle by a Baptist church to build a school in rural Lothian - near one of Anne Arundel's most environmentally sensitive areas - county lawmakers put off a vote this week on legislation that would clear the way for construction and keep the county out of a $3 million lawsuit in federal court.

County Council members listened intently Monday as opponents of a proposed expansion of Arundel Bay Christian Academy that would be built on a 57-acre tract near the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary pleaded against the school, which is affiliated with Riverdale Baptist Church.

Many complained that roads and other infrastructure are inadequate to handle increased car and bus traffic. Winding country lanes with steep ditches, no shoulders and poor sight lines make the area particularly ill-suited for a large-scale building that is also inconsistent with the area's rural character, they say.

Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks, a Republican from Severn, said he could see little sense in adding more traffic.

"The roads down there are terrible," Middlebrooks said. "It's a public hazard. I can't fathom putting that school in that location."

Church officials, rebuffed by the county's Board of Appeals and state appellate courts, were set to take their case to federal court, charging that Anne Arundel violated church members' religious rights, when they reached a tentative settlement last November.

According to the arrangement, church leaders would drop their lawsuit, and the county could pay as much as $300,000 - provided the County Council approves legislation allowing the church to move ahead with construction.

County Attorney Jonathan Hodgson urged lawmakers to approve the settlement to avoid expensive litigation. Hodgson shrugged off suggestions from opponents of the church school that allowing the project to go ahead would encourage developers and others to intimidate county officials with the threat of more lawsuits.

"The suggestion that we're buckling under pressure is just false," Hodgson said. "We have 19 lawyers on staff, and we defend lawsuits every day. We're certainly not shy about litigation."

Opponents such as Rene Smit, a resident of nearby Lothian, said the case has nothing to do with religion or church.

"We don't want this monstrosity," Smit told council members. "Look at the long-term interest of the county. This is a disgrace."

According to Michael Leahy, the academy's lawyer, the project's potentially negative elements have been exaggerated since church and school leaders first discussed it with county officials in 2001.

"It's unfortunate that these folks believe their desire to maintain things the way they are trumps constitutionally protected rights," Leahy said. "This is getting too emotional. It's clouding people's judgment."

Environmental activists, including members of Friends of Jug Bay and Patuxent River Keeper Fred Tutman, insisted that backing away from the lawsuit would encourage similar tactics by developers and others who frequently square off against county officials.

"This sends the message that if you don't get what you want from the county, just file a big lawsuit," Tutman said. "It looks like the county clearly heads for the hills."

County Council members plan to vote on the legislation at their next legislative session Dec. 1.

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