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Church tree sale canceled over zoning County says structure is in residential area


After a decade of selling Christmas trees, a Towson-area church has had to forgo its annual fund-raising project this year because of a zoning squabble.

Rodgers Forge United Methodist Church usually makes more than $1,000 from the sale of seasonal greenery, but county officials have barred the sale because the church is in a residential area.

"It's a pretty significant amount for a small congregation like ours," said the Rev. Doug Cunningham, minister of the 100-member congregation that has been at Stevenson Lane and Bellona Avenue for 40 years. "We're an older church in an older neighborhood. We have a need to raise funds."

But according to Arnold Jablon, county director of permits and development management, the church is involved in a commercial enterprise in a residential area. Townhouses and detached houses back up to the adjacent grassy lot, where the (( trees usually are sold.

"We got a complaint. We're following through," said Jablon, adding that other churches and institutions have been cited in the past for selling Christmas trees -- as well as flowers and snowballs -- in residential areas.

Although he did not know the number of cases in which the permits department has taken action, Jablon said the department only does so when it gets a complaint.

But members of the church don't understand the county's stance.

"I felt as a citizen that the county took an attitude that is not its stated purpose to help older communities revitalize," said church trustee Rick Barnes. "We're interested in trying to work it out. The worst thing that could happen to the community would be to have a large piece of ground and building not maintained."

Funds raised from the church's Christmas tree sales have paid for church maintenance, which benefits the neighborhood, Barnes said.

"We have a lot of community activities at the church," he said, listing Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, a day care center and relief efforts. "The community uses it all the time."

In frustration, the church has turned to Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican, for help.

Riley introduced a resolution this week to the County Council, asking the planning board to consider proposing amendments that would allow certain retail sales in residential zones.

"I'm concerned," Riley said. "First of all, the county has decided to prosecute a Christian church for selling Christmas trees. Also, is an ancillary use of a church to sell Christmas trees. They are religious symbols."

It could take six months for the planning board to report its findings, which then could be introduced into legislation, Riley said.

Meanwhile, Barnes said, "We're still getting calls asking, 'Where are the Christmas trees?' "

Pub Date: 12/20/96

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