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Zoning dispute embroils Hunt Valley church

THE BALTIMORE SUN

St. Mary's Orthodox Church, a small congregation that thought it had found a permanent place to worship, is finding life in Hunt Valley full of bumps and bruises and not very peaceful.

Baltimore County, some local residents and a large community watchdog group have been fighting development practices of the church, which sits off Shawan Road west of Interstate 83 near Oregon Ridge Park.

The 25-year-old congregation of about 50 families bought its 3.4 acres in 1984 and built the church more than three years ago after meeting for years in members' homes or the basement of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Cockeysville. But the situation has gotten complicated with a morass of zoning errors by the church and county and complaints from the community.

Now, county Zoning Commissioner Lawrence A. Schmidt has ruled that the church has to either tear down the worship/assembly hall or start over to get county approval for what it already has built.

The bitter, 3-year-old dispute even has prompted church officials to accuse opponents of prejudice.

But many of St. Mary's injuries have been self-inflicted. The church did not follow the county's development process and violated zoning laws and county orders. In some cases, church officials said they were unaware of procedures, and some violations were technical.

The commissioner's June ruling came after church officials acquiesced in county suggestions that it ask for a hearing to remedy problems in the way it developed the tract.

"We did what the county wanted us to do, and now we're being crucified," said Ramon Jadra, a member of the church council.

Go back to 1984, when St. Mary's received a special zoning exception approval based on its plans to build a 7,500-square-foot rectangular worship hall at the site, which is in a rural conservation zone. A deputy commissioner placed restrictions on the approval, including requiring a landscaping plan and an on-site septic system.

But when the church applied for building permits in 1989, it submitted a different plan. This plan showed an H-shaped building of 8,300 square feet, a larger parking area and a new configuration.

When a plan that has been approved is changed, a special hearing is required to amend it. St. Mary's did not follow that procedure.

"Our own ignorance of the procedures is why we didn't follow through with this," said Mr. Jadra.

Mr. Jadra, a member of the building committee, said church officials felt the changes were insignificant. He also said the church had worked with county officials in the 1989 building permit application process and had complied with suggestions.

In any case, county agencies that should have caught the changes in the plan didn't. They issued the permits.

"With the thousands of building permit applications that come through, these kinds of slip-ups, although few in number, will occur," said Arnold Jablon, director of the office of Zoning Administration and Development Management. "Obviously, there was a lack of communication among agencies in this case."

In his written opinion, Mr. Schmidt noted both the county and church errors. He also said they were moot because the original special exception approval had a five-year life span and the church had missed the deadline.

On that basis, Mr. Schmidt ruled the church was built illegally and gave members the option of tearing it down or seeking the special exception approval again.

St. Mary's has appealed Mr. Schmidt's decision to the Board of Appeals.

The problems with the community began in 1991, after the building was finished, when the church decided to rent its building for weddings and other events and advertised in local newspapers.

"The church needed the revenue those outside events would bring," said Jerry Sackleh, chairman of the church council.

The Valleys Planning Council -- a 32-year-old nonprofit group that acts as a watchdog over development in the Green Spring and Worthington valleys and Western Run Valley (which includes Hunt Valley) -- filed a complaint with zoning officials, saying the church was using the building as a community hall.

Zoning enforcement officials agreed and ordered the church to stop renting the building. The church complied.

But, in acting on that complaint, zoning officials realized that what the church had developed was not what had been approved. It also had not done required landscaping and had an off-site septic system.

"We told the church to come in for a special hearing to rectify the situation," Mr. Jablon said.

The hearing was scheduled for February 1992 but was postponed at the last minute by the church and community groups so they could attempt to work out a solution. However, the meetings accomplished little.

At the county's urging, the church filed for a special hearing this year to amend its original special exception and approved development plan. Church officials and community leaders met to try to resolve the issue but failed again.

"The bottom line was the church wanted us to agree that they could do whatever they wanted to on the site, and that wasn't acceptable to us," said Margaret Worrell, executive director of Valleys Planning Council.

Church officials said the community made unfair demands.

Mr. Sackleh claimed that it was during these meetings that comments were made about "those Greeks coming into the valley." St. Mary's has few Greek parishioners, he said, with most of the members from Russian, Eastern European and Middle Eastern backgrounds.

"I feel there is some prejudice on the part of the Valleys Planning Council," Mr. Jadra said. "I wish I knew why."

Ms. Worrell said she wouldn't dignify such charges with a response. "All we are asking is for the church to abide by the same development and zoning rules and regulations everyone else is subject to," she said.

Mr. Jadra said church members just want to be a part of the community and worship in peace.

"We love this community," he said. "We mean good. We mean no harm to anyone."

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