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Hunt Valley church suing Baltimore County over development restrictions

A Presbyterian church in Hunt Valley has filed a federal lawsuit against Baltimore County government over development regulations for houses of worship.

In a lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court, the Hunt Valley Church says “burdensome and discriminatory” regulation has required the church to limit its ministry in ways that restrict its free exercise of religion.

The church on Beaver Dam Road near Interstate 83 wants to expand its facilities, saying current space doesn’t meet the congregation’s needs.

The lawsuit is the fourth filed against the county this year by a religious organization over land-use issues. Hunt Valley Baptist Church, the Congregation ARIEL Russian Community Synagogue and Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries Inc. have all filed lawsuits on similar grounds. Those lawsuits are pending in federal court.

At issue in the Hunt Valley Church case are restrictions the county Board of Appeals placed on the church’s proposed expansion.

In an order issued this month, the appeals board approved an amendment to the church’s development plan but placed a number of conditions on it.

For example, the church would have to give local residents a calendar of scheduled events, and would have to provide residents with 48 hours notice of events not on the calendar — such as Bible camp, ceremonies, weddings and other events — that would likely draw 50 or more people. Another condition is that the church space out its three Sunday services so that there is between one hour and 15 minutes to one-and-a-half hours between services.

“These unreasonable conditions imposed by the Board of Appeals substantially burden the Church’s religious exercise,” the lawsuit claims.

The church was founded in 1991, but members initially rented space elsewhere to worship, according to the lawsuit. The church currently splits activities between the facility on Beaver Dam Road and a satellite location called “The Point,” at a warehouse space on the other side of I-83.

According to filings with the Board of Appeals, the church wants to eliminate the need for the Point by constructing a 67,115-square-foot building. The plan would increase seating from 375 to 950 seats, and increase parking from 146 spaces to 437.

Some residents near the church oppose the expansion. Neighbors who testified at a hearing about the plans described concerns including traffic and water issues, according to filings with the Board of Appeals. One woman said she regularly had problems getting in and out of her driveway because of church traffic. Another said the church was too big for the neighborhood’s size and character and likened it to a Walmart.

The lawsuit names both the county and the Board of Appeals as defendants.

Church officials could not be reached for comment.

Roman P. Storzer, a lawyer whose Washington firm focuses on religious organization, is representing all four of the religious institutions that have sued the county.

He said the number of lawsuits “demonstrates that the ability of places of worship, of religious organizations to worship, is really threatened in the county.”

Baltimore County spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said officials could not comment on specifics of the case because they had not yet seen the lawsuit. But she said the county would “defend this suit and defend its zoning and development process.”

“Baltimore County now has four lawsuits that portray it as hostile to religious worship,” Kobler said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun. “Nothing could be further from truth. Current data shows that we have 599 houses of worship in the county.

“It is a shame that these disputes over development issues are now being used as part of a full-frontal attack on the county’s zoning and development processes,” Kobler said.

NOTE: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of Sunday services that are held at Hunt Valley Church. It has been corrected here.

alisonk@baltsun.com

twitter.com/aliknez

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