Love Fellowship Christian Center's plan to build a church and related facilities on a site next to William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary School in Abingdon received a major boost in the county approval process recently when a zoning hearing examiner ruled favorably on a setback variance for the project.
In an opinion released Feb. 27, hearing examiner Robert Kahoe cited the unusual features of the 7.28-acre site in granting a variance from the required 50-foot setback from adjoining properties.
The variance will permit a proposed 177-space parking lot and driveway to be constructed within 20 feet of the shared boundary with the elementary school. Without it, a smaller parking area would have necessitated constructing a building smaller than the 18,400-square-foot structure planned that will include the sanctuary, multipurpose classrooms, media rooms, gymnasium, day care center, meeting rooms and a cafe.
Between 30 and 40 percent of the area of the site, which is along Route 7, is within a natural resources district consisting of a stream, wetlands and forest conservation and retention areas, which can't be disturbed by development, according to the testimony at the Jan. 7 hearing on the variance request.
As an institutional use located next to a small parcel that is zoned residential but not developed, the 50-foot setback for buildings, parking areas and other facilities is required.
Both church and county planning department representatives testified the planned uses would have negligible impact because most of the site's southern boundary adjoins the elementary school property, also an institutional use. The site is bordered on the north by the Harford County Education Society's Masjid Al Falaah center and mosque.
"The failure of the Applicants to obtain the requested variance will result in a significantly reduced parking area and improvements," Kahoe wrote in his opinion. "The Church would simply not be able to construct the proposed facility without the requested variance."
"The variance is minor in nature and is the minimum necessary to alleviate the Applicants' practical difficulty," he continued. "No adverse impact has been identified, and none should result if the variance is granted."
Although county planners supported the variance at the January hearing, they first raised a red flag about the setback issue during a review of the project last August by the county's Development Advisory Committee, where church representatives were warned the proposed driveway was in the natural resources district and would have to be moved elsewhere and that the parking area would encroach into the 50-foot setback from the neighboring properties. That triggered the variance request, a church member said Saturday.
"This should get us going," Carla Walton, a Love Fellowship trustee, said. Because the congregation only learned of the Kahoe opinion in the past week, Walton said there is no tentative date yet for beginning or completing construction. Last fall, church leaders had expressed optimism they could begin site work this year.
The Love Fellowship Christian Congregation is led by its founding pastor, Rev. T. Anthony Thompson, and was started in 2006, meeting first at a local Elks lodge and later in an office building and then at Church Creek Elementary School, before moving to its current location at Harford Community Church in Creswell, where it holds weekly services. Harford Community Church pastor Allan Gorman testified in support of Love Fellowship's site variance.
"LFCC is a non-denominational, multicultural, full gospel, spirit filled church," Love Fellowship said in an earlier statement about its mission. "LFCC attracts people and families who simply believe in the Bible as a final authority for answers to all questions of life. The emphasis of the teaching, preaching, prayer, worship and our entire ministry is to provide hope and God's Love (AGAPE) to all people of all ages, by pointing them toward a personal relationship with God and proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord."
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"LFCC is committed to working together as a constellation of stars in pursuit of positively impacting Harford County, the community and ultimately the world," the statement continued. "The true essence of LFCC is; for us to be 'Kingdom Builders.' Building God's Kingdom means changing, transforming through God's word, a generation and a culture to see God's manifested Glory revealed."