An Anne Arundel County ordinance that restricts churches to residential neighborhoods is choking the life out of fledgling congregations like the West County Community Church, religious leaders say.
"It's strangling us," said the Rev. Frederick M. Hurd, pastor of the year-old congregation, which meets in the Odenton Elementary School auditorium. "It interferes with the free practice of religion."
That's why the County Council will consider lifting those restrictions when it meets tonight. Also on the agenda are a partial repeal of the retirement benefits paid to former elected and appointed officials and a plan to tax cellular telephone customers to finance the 911 emergency system.
Councilman Thomas R. Redmond, a Pasadena Democrat, has proposed that the county allow churches in commercial and industrial areas as a way to help new congregations. Those congregations, which often form in residents' basements, can rapidly outgrow their meeting places, he said.
Although the members of most of them would like to purchase property and build their own churches, they cannot always afford to, Mr. Redmond said. And the restrictions in Anne Arundel's zoning code severely limit their options, such as renting space in shopping centers or office buildings.
"There is no way of seeing into the future," said Mr. Hurd, who also has organized nondenominational churches in Pittsfield, Ill. and Butler, Pa. "But, as it is now, I don't see any way for our church to become what we want without first renting commercial space."
West County Community Church, organized by four Odenton families with Mr. Hurd's help, attracts up to 80 worshipers every Sunday and would like to move to quarters larger than the school auditorium, he said.
The congregation recently tried to purchase a former steak house but was outbid by a businessman.
"It was just as well," Mr. Hurd said. "We later learned it would be illegal for us to move there, anyway."
Some congregations already are renting commercial space. The Ark & Dove Presbyterian Church worships in the Arundel Crossing West Industrial Park while it builds its owns house on Piney Orchard Parkway.
Some council members have voiced concerns about lifting the restrictions.
Council Chairwoman Diane Evans said she wonders if allowing churches, which are tax exempt, to settle permanently in commercial and industrial areas would remove revenue-generating properties from the county's tax rolls.
"We have precious little commercial and industrial property now," said Mrs. Evans, an Arnold Republican.
Kevin Dooley, a planner with the county Department of Planning and Code Enforcement, said churches probably would not settle permanently in commercial areas because the land there costs more.
"They are really looking for a space where they can operate until the congregation grows and they can go out and build their own space," he said.
Councilman George F. Bachman, a Linthicum Democrat, said he worries that congregation members' cars would flood commercial parking lots, squeezing out the customers of local businesses.
Mr. Redmond said he doesn't expect that to happen because such congregations generally meet on Sundays and in the evenings, when most businesses would be closed.
Besides, Mr. Redmond said, "You're not talking about large congregations."