Mary E. Zinkhan has nothing against churches. She just doesn't want to live in the shadow of one.
Besides, the old 60-foot Norway maple tree in her front yard provides quite enough shade, thank you. But plans are under way for a cathedral-like church whose 95-foot-high steeple would cast a big shadow over her country house in Hunt Valley.
To stop this from happening, Mrs. Zinkhan, her neighbors and several community organizations have joined forces against the
Hunt Valley Presbyterian Church, which wants to build a 25,000-square-foot church on Beaver Dam Road, right across from her house.
They've hired traffic consultants and appealed the church's special zoning exception. The issue is pending before the Baltimore County Board of Appeals.
Two other churches -- Catholic Community of St. Francis Xavier Church and St. Mary's Orthodox Catholic Church -- have filed similar requests for zoning variances, all within a square mile of Mrs. Zinkhan's home. The requests have prompted fears that religious denominations are eyeing the area's relatively cheap and abundant land and envisioning churches that will dwarf anything in their community.
As John Sewell explained to the Board of Appeals, residents of the Ivy Hill section of Hunt Valley feel they are entitled to churches that "are sensitive to our rural character."
At the heart of the issue, however, are countywide population shifts. More and more people are leaving crowded suburbs for rural countryside. Though the county's Master Plan designated White Marsh and Owings Mills as growth areas, rural areas have had more growth in the past 10 years than those two areas combined, said the county planning director, P. David Fields.
As more people move to the north county looking for a less hectic lifestyle, the small, quaint country churches that symbolized that kind of life may be replaced by large churches.
"It's not that we are opposed to churches building in our community," said Margaret Worrall, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council Inc. "But these massive churches would be a visual intrusion. And once these churches are in, who knows what other kind of large institutional uses will follow?"
Local residents also fear that Sunday morning traffic could overwhelm local roads, cause tie-ups at the intersection of Shawan, Beaver Dam and Cuba roads and create unsafe conditions.
At a recent Board of Appeals hearing, Mr. Sewell said: "Sunday is a day of peace, rest and relaxation. We'll have to set our comings and goings around the schedules of the church."
County planning officials, having been made aware of the problem, are considering a new zoning classification to control the growth of large institutions in more rural areas. Under Baltimore County's current zoning code, churches can't build in an RC-2 zone (agricultural preservation) or RC-4 (watershed protection) without getting a special exception from the county zoning commissioner.
Mr. Fields said a special zoning classification would channel FTC such development into designated areas "so they wouldn't have an adverse impact on the community's rural character." Like Hunt Valley Presbyterian, the Catholic Community of St. Francis Xavier Church also is fighting public opposition. Its special exemption for a 650-seat, 14,500-square-foot church has been appealed. The church would be located on 27 acres of agriculture preservation land, less than a mile north of the proposed Hunt Valley Presbyterian Church.
Just east of the intersection of Shawan, Beaver Dam and Cuba roads is St. Mary's Orthodox Catholic Church, which has applied for a special exception to build a 3,500-square-foot chapel on land zoned RC-4. Robert Cannon, attorney for St. Mary's, declined to comment on the church's plans. The Rev. George F. Romley, priest at St. Mary's, could not be reached for comment.
To bolster their positions at the appeals hearings, community organizations surveyed existing churches in RC-2 and RC-4 zones. They found that those churches average 6,000 to 7,000 square feet and seat around 250 worshipers. The proposed Hunt Valley Presbyterian Church is more than three times that size.
"I don't understand the need for these large churches unless they intend them to be regional churches," Mrs. Worrall said.
Church representatives say their churches are intended to meet the needs of the immediate area.
Monsignor Thomas J. Donellan, pastor of St. Francis Xavier, said the nearest Catholic churches are miles away in Parkton and Cockeysville. St. Joseph's in Cockeysville is way over capacity, he said.
"Our church would alleviate the overcrowding at St. Joseph's and provide a service for Catholic parishioners in the north-central part of the county," Monsignor Donellan said, adding that the proposed church is about average size for a Catholic church.
The Hunt Valley Presbyterian Church also wants to serve mainly the local area, said Roger O. Robertson, a member of the committee that recommended the Beaver Dam Road location. Hunt Valley Presbyterian belongs to the Presbyterian Church of America, a smaller and more conservative sect than the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The smaller sect's two nearest churches are in Timonium and in New Freedom, Pa., Mr. Robertson said.
Beyond the concern about traffic congestion and church size is the fear that final approval for these three churches could open the door for others.
"Other churches, other institutions could come out here looking for land to build on and tell the county: 'You gave it to them; now give it to us,' " Mrs. Worrall said.