In a ruling issued yesterday, the state Office of the Attorney General held that "a church in a historic district is subject to the procedural requirements of the local historic zoning ordinance."
Sykesville officials had requested the opinion as St. Paul's United Methodist Church moved to expand its building on Main Street.
Both municipal and church leaders said they welcomed the opinion as a step to preventing disagreements over jurisdiction.
"The Historic Commission is willing to help the church see that work is done appropriately so that both our goals and requirements are met," said Councilman Jonathan Herman. "Together we can preserve the quality and character of the church building."
Mr. Herman stressed "there was no controversy" in the town's request for a clarification of the state's guidelines for historic district commissions, which state that any church "must submit plans for exterior changes to its building to the local historic zoning commission."
Rebecca Herman, Historic Commission chairwoman, said no property owner in the district is exempt from the review process.
"In any exterior change on any property in the historic district, owners, including residents, businesses and churches, must seek approval from the commission," she said.
But the commission cannot "restrict the practice of our faith," noted the Rev. Roland "Bud" Brown, pastor of the growing congregation.
"There is an overflow of 20 to 30 people [beyond the 150 capacity of the sanctuary] every week," Mr. Brown said. "The overflow area is a poor place to worship, with horrible acoustics."
To accommodate its worshipers, the church has been planning a $600,000 renovation and expansion project. The new sanctuary will hold about 250 people.
"Our discipline and polity is to provide accessible space to worship," said Mr. Brown.
After reading the 17-page attorney general's opinion yesterday, the pastor of the century-old church said he welcomed the state's clarification and called it "something both the town and the church can live with."
"It cleared up ambiguities and will help us make sure we are all on solid ground as we go through this process," said Mr. Brown.
He said the conclusion was "basically all we've been asserting. They can't say we can't expand."
The histories of Sykesville and St. Paul's United Church are entwined, said Mr. Brown. He agreed that "there are areas we are all concerned about preserving," including the 19th-century facade and scalloping.
The church's architects, Centura Associates of Chambersburg, Pa., have recommended no changes to the front of the building.
"We wanted to preserve as much of the facade as we can," said Mr. Brown, who added that all the stained-glass windows, memorials and murals also will be preserved.
The town also sought the opinion of architects who specialized in historic renovation. The church and town officials met recently with Roger Katzenberg, architect with Kann and Associates of Baltimore.
"The architect's recommendations can help us strike a compromise," said Mr. Herman. "We need more than local opinions to make sure we help property owners get the best evaluation possible."
The congregation has raised more than half of the $600,000 needed for the proposed renovation. Work can begin as soon as plans win approval from county and municipal agencies, church leaders and the congregation.
The first decision the building committee faced was whether the church should move from its "land-locked" location where little expansion room exists.
"We decided it was overwhelmingly important to stay where we are," Mr. Brown said. "Our history is intrinsically linked to Sykesville. We are a vital part of the town."