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Church and neighbors are at odds in Lutherville

Signs planted along Falls Road in Lutherville oppose the plans by Grace Fellowship Church to build a 78,000-square-foot church on nearby Seminary Avenue.
Signs planted along Falls Road in Lutherville oppose the plans by Grace Fellowship Church to build a 78,000-square-foot church on nearby Seminary Avenue. (Pamela Wood / Baltimore Sun)

Members of Grace Fellowship Church praise God, study the Bible and plan mission trips from a converted furniture warehouse in an office park in Timonium.

They hope to build a new church soon on a wooded tract in a residential area four miles away but are running into intense opposition from neighbors who say the church is too big and will cause too much traffic in their community.

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The church has contracted to buy 21 wooded acres on the north side of Seminary Avenue in Lutherville, just east of Falls Road.

Opponents say they have nothing against the church, but the size of the planned facility — larger than the average grocery store at 78,000 square feet with more than 500 parking spots — is out of character with the rural nature of the community.

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"When the word 'church' was contemplated in a rural zone, my mind goes to the little white building with a steeple that people walk to," said Michael Friedman, one of the leaders of a Save Seminary campaign.

"This is in the wrong place," said Garland McPherson, another neighbor involved in the opposition.

McPherson and Friedman, who has fought past zoning battles in northern Baltimore County, are coordinating the Save Seminary effort, organizing leaders from a dozen community associations and about 100 residents in various committees tackling fundraising, lawn signs and weekly conference calls to coordinate strategy.

The group plans to turn out in force Monday when Baltimore County government hosts a community meeting on the church's plans.

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Danny O'Brien, a retired pastor who leads Grace Fellowship's building committee, declined to be interviewed but said in a statement the church hopes to find common ground with neighbors as it goes through the county approval process.

"We are committed to working together with the community in a very constructive manner," O'Brien wrote. "For over 35 years, we have had the privilege of serving this community and we look forward to continuing to do so for years to come."

County Councilman Wade Kach said he hoped the church and neighbors could reach an agreement, but he doesn't believe the two sides have seriously discussed matters.

Over the summer, as the county was undergoing its quadrennial review of zoning across the county, Kach rejected a request from opponents of the church to put restrictive zoning on the property, saying it would have severely diminished the land value.

The property, commonly called the Leidy property, is owned by a family trust based in New York state. It is valued at about $875,000 for tax purposes, according to state property records. A representative of the owners could not be reached for comment.

Friedman said the new zoning wouldn't have blocked the church but would have limited the area allowed to be paved to just 10 percent of the property.

Neighbors say that under the current plans the church, which would seat up to 1,200 people for each of its three weekend services, would put a strain on the aquifer that feeds the wells they use for drinking water. They also are concerned about runoff harming Deep Run, a stream that runs along the property and eventually flows into the Jones Falls.

Kach, a Cockeysville Republican, said he shares some of the neighbors' concerns about traffic and the environment. He said the church has promised to use permeable surfaces in parts of the parking lot, allowing stormwater to infiltrate into the ground instead of rushing off.

The church also showed him designs for berms and landscaping along Seminary Avenue, he said.

"I think it does satisfy some of the major concerns," Kach said of the church design.

If the two sides had been able to come together, he said, "I think it may be a situation where other concerns could have been brought up and solutions discussed."

"I believe that people are reasonable," he said. "I'm upset that these meetings never took place."

For Grace Fellowship, the current fight seems like deja vu. In 2008, the church proposed buying the 30-acre Padonia Park Club to build a 150,000-square-foot church with a sanctuary that would have seating for 2,500 worshippers.

Neighbors of the club raised similar concerns as the Save Seminary group — that the church would increase traffic, affect water and sewer systems and change the nature of their neighborhood.

The church ultimately pulled out of the deal, saying it had not raised enough money.

For its new proposal, Grace Fellowship must submit a final plan that would go before a county administrative judge who would decide whether it met county requirements. The judge's ruling can be appealed to the county's Board of Appeals.

In a recent letter to church members posted on Grace Fellowship's website, O'Brien praised Kach's recent decision to retain the current zoning, and thanked members for their own lobbying efforts.

He also urged members to keep the faith that a new church is on the way.

"We are confident that, when all is said and done, we can develop a plan that meets our needs and that addresses any reasonable concerns of others in the surrounding community," O'Brien wrote.

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