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Baltimore County paying $1.1 million to settle Hunt Valley church land-use discrimination lawsuit

Baltimore County has agreed to pay $1.1 million to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit filed in federal court in 2017 by Hunt Valley Baptist Church after a county board denied the church’s plan to build a larger facility on Shawan Road.

A judge in Baltimore’s U.S. District Court judge found that the county violated a federal law that protects religious institutions from discrimination in zoning when its zoning appeals board ruled against the church project in 2017.

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Hunt Valley Baptist was seeking permission to build a 1,000-seat sanctuary with classrooms, a kitchen, gym, offices and parking for 240 cars on a 17-acre farm just west of Interstate 83. The project, near Saint Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church, had an estimated construction cost of $5 million, according to the lawsuit.

County planning staff and an administrative law judge recommended and approved a special exception for the church to be built on the property, which is zoned for conservation to protect the watershed. The lawsuit said such an exception is permitted with approval on such property.

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But the approval was reversed after neighbors who opposed the church’s expansion — which they described during zoning hearings as a “megachurch” — appealed the administrative law judge decision.

Opponents argued its construction could lead to a proliferation of new development in the northern county countryside near Oregon Ridge Park and a country club.

Established in 2004, Hunt Valley Baptist Church is currently located in a smaller sanctuary on Worthington Heights Parkway off Cuba Road just north of Shawan Road. The church bought the Shawan Road property in 2012 for $900,000, according to land records.

The church alleged in its suit that the county’s zoning laws allowed for the “arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement” of land use regulations in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

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The church also said the zoning board’s reversal of prior county project approvals was “substantially motivated by hostility to the religious character and activities of the Church and its evangelical Christian form of worship,” the lawsuit states.

The federal court upheld the plaintiffs’ argument that the county deprived the church of its right to the free exercise of religion by imposing land use regulations in a manner that treats the church on terms that are less than equal to nonreligious assembly and institutional land uses.

The county and church settled the lawsuit March 31 after U.S. District Judge Stephanie A. Gallagher denied the county’s request for reconsideration of the court’s decision, according to federal court records.

Hunt Valley Baptist Church did not return a call for comment.

The lawsuit was one of several religious discrimination lawsuits filed in 2017 challenging county zoning regulations. Last year, Baltimore County paid $375,000 to Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries in Milford Mill. In 2019, the county paid $500,000 to Hunt Valley Presbyterian Church to settle a similar land use discrimination lawsuit.

“These were cases that commenced prior to this administration,” county spokesman Sean Naron wrote in an email. “Upon review, it was determined that it was in the best interest of the county to resolve these matters. Actions on all future cases will be determined by the specific facts of each individual case.”‬

A fourth land use discrimination filed in 2017 by the Congregation ARIEL Russian Community Synagogue in Pikesville is still in litigation, according to online court records.

All the religious organizations have been represented by a Washington law firm, Storzer and Associates, that has represented churches, synagogues and mosques in land-use disputes across the country. An attorney from Storzer and Associates was not available for comment.

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