City removes zoning restrictions on churches, businesses

Last year, the Rev. Daryl Terry of Faith Fellowship Community Church in Laurel wanted to relocate his parish to Main Street.

But because of a law that prohibited places of worship and establishments that serve alcohol from being located within 500 feet of one another unless they received a special exception, Terry was effectively banished from the city's prime real estate.

"The churches should just be as visible as your local restaurants, your liquor stores; we should have that same visibility," Terry said standing inside his current space, located on West Street across from the Municipal Center.

Following Monday's City Council meeting, they can.

On July 22, the Laurel City Council unanimously passed an ordinance abolishing special restrictions on the distance between churches and businesses that sell liquor. For the Rev. Kevin McGhee, president of the Laurel Clergy Association and senior pastor at Bethany Community Church, the vote was decades in the making.

"I have been going through this for 25 years," said McGhee.

McGhee said while Monday's vote marked passage of the law, the true battle was won in Annapolis earlier this year, when the Maryland General Assembly passed a law amending the state law specifically for Laurel. The law, which passed unanimously in the house and the senate, allowed the council to pass the ordinance waiving the zoning restrictions.

"Cities across the state were keeping churches out of commercial districts," McGhee said. "We got that code changed in the city of Laurel."

Sen. Jim Rosapepe, the bill's sponsor in the Senate, said the bill "provides flexibility to improve Laurel."

"A good community has a good faith community, a good restaurant community and a good business community," said Rosapepe, a Democrat who represents District 21, which includes Laurel.

After the state law passed in April, with support from city officials and members of the Clergy Association, creating the ordinance in Laurel was the next step in facilitating the change.

"The churches and the city have worked together to come up with something that we will all be happy with," McGhee said.

City Council President Fred Smalls sees the ordinance as something that will help cultivate the city's business community.

"It's an economic development tool," Smalls said. "Main Street is a perfect example of businesses and their proximity to churches."

One Main Street business that was hampered by the law is Salute Ristorante Italiano.

"We have Italian food. People like to have Italian food with wine," said Meriem Kass, who owns the Italian restaurant with her husband, Abdellah.

Kass said the city's new ordinance "is going to help the business a lot. People come to our nice dining room and are expecting to order wine. When we say we don't have it, some people leave."

Smalls said the law will also allow Laurel to expand its business community on Main Street and near the new Towne Centre Laurel, a mixed-use development currently under construction on the former site of the Laurel Mall.

"It gives us a greater opportunity to bring in the kinds of restaurants we feel, quite frankly, the residents of our city deserve: That's high end, white tablecloth restaurants," he said.

While Smalls views the ordinance from an economic standpoint, he called it a "win-win" for both the church community and the business community.

"We don't have any problems with churches that want to establish themselves in Laurel," Smalls said. "There are so many things that come into consideration, whether it's a church or another business who wants to relocate to the city. But it certainly levels the playing field."

And while the even playing field is one year too late for Terry and his church, he's not complaining.

A 2012 City Council ordinance, which Terry said served as a precursor to Monday's legislation, began to loosen restrictions on the location of churches, which is what allowed him to move into the business park across from the Municipal Center.

"In Laurel, we have a great relationship with the city," Terry said.

Both Terry and McGhee hope the new ordinance will allow for more congregations and churches to relocate into the city, including Christ Reformed Presbyterian Church, which is currently based at Forest Ridge Elementary School in North Laurel.

According to the Rev. Skip Dusenbury, the church will meet this week to discuss moving into the city.

"We love Laurel and think it is a great place," said Dusenbury. "Most of our congregation is from the Laurel area. ... This (legislation) broadens the opportunities for us to relocate in the city."

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