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The north county vs. the churches


Amid the scrutiny given to America's post-war exodus to the suburbs, the increase in the number of churches and synagogues beyond city boundaries tends to be overlooked. Just as homebuilders and retailers acted swiftly to capitalize on a burgeoning suburban clientele, religious groups moved to establish places of worship for former city-dwellers. A bishop knows as well as a businessman that survival means being where the people are.

Now more Americans are leaving the increasingly urban suburbs for the more rural exurbs, and they are again being trailed by homebuilders, retailers and, as evidenced by a current handful of cases in Baltimore County, religious groups.

Locally, the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Catholic and Roman Catholic churches have responded to this population shift with plans to build new structures in the county's northern reaches. Why they want to build there is no mystery: The rural north county reportedly has experienced more population growth in the past decade than have the designated "growth areas" of White Marsh and Owings Mills combined.

But before any of the church groups can start laying bricks, each will have to overcome community opposition. The residents say the large new structures would be architecturally inconsistent with the area's bucolic setting, especially Hunt Valley Presbyterian's proposed 25,000-square foot structure. They also claim the buildings would produce excessive traffic and could pave the way for further development in an environmentally delicate section of the county.

The Orthodox Catholic and Roman Catholic groups have applied to the county for special exceptions to build in the area. The Presbyterian congregation has already won an exception, but it is being appealed by local residents. That particular drama has been running for more than a year.

Friction of this sort between well-meaning religious groups and worried communities could be avoided if the county were to take certain steps. First, county officials should do all they can to direct development into specified north county areas whose rural character would not be adversely disturbed by large projects. A plan to achieve this is reportedly being considered.

Second, the zoning commission should be less generous with exceptions for projects that would upset the north county's sensitive balance. Such an approach need not preclude new religious buildings or other necessary structures, but it should block the sort of incongruous, cathedral-like building that Hunt Valley Presbyterian has proposed.

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