Board OKs church plan 55,090-square-foot complex proposed by First Baptist; Parking restricted; Clergyman says residents' opposition is an act of racism


Overcoming months of community opposition, First Baptist Church of Guilford has won approval of an ambitious plan to build the county's first mega-church.

The Howard County Board of Appeals concluded five months of contentious public hearings yesterday morning by approving the year-old church's plan, which includes a two-story sanctuary with 2,000 seats, a 636-space parking lot and a 3,400-square-foot community center.

The board also set a controversial condition -- restricting use of the community center parking lot -- that both sides agree will be difficult to enforce.

Debate over the church's expansion has often been abrasive. Homeowners in neighborhoods near First Baptist have argued that building a 55,090-square-foot complex on an 8 1/2 -acre site at Oakland Mills and Guilford roads would overwhelm the neighborhood.

Church members have charged that opposition to the project comes from a small number of disgruntled community leaders who use racist rhetoric to squash the efforts of the growing black congregation.

The Rev. John L. Wright, pastor of the church, called the decision "favorable," and said groundbreaking would be well into next year.

The recommendations that the community center's parking lot remain only half full stem from the board's concern about the "traffic that exits out of or into the church [and the community center] at peak hours," Wright said. "The board was trying to regulate that flow. We can live with that; it's not a problem at all."

Just how the church plans to regulate use of the community center and how many people would use the site remain to be seen.

"It's a good question," Wright said.

Attorney Thomas Meachum, who represents a group of community associations and homeowners who live in the immediate vicinity of the church, called the decision disappointing, adding that the board "failed to recognize the high probability of the adverse impact of a facility this large on a lot that's not big enough and a road system that's not equipped to handle the traffic."

The parking condition imposed by the board will require "the citizens to be watchdogs" for the church, Meachum said. "Some of them are concerned that because of the massive size of the [church] and the high degree of activity there, that potential [home] buyers will not consider this community as a desirable place to live."

The board's decision was a difficult one, Meachum said, because of the relatively new phenomenon of mega-churches and how they will affect future zoning laws.

"The problem is that the original zoning came with the assumption that the churches that they allowed in residential areas would be small and would complement the community," he said. "In no way could they have foreseen something like mega-churches in residential areas. It's like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole."

Now that the hearings are over and church officials are free to proceed, both sides say they are looking forward to moving beyond the hostility of the hearings. Like previous hearings before the board, Tuesday night's went on for hours. It ended after midnight with the board voting 3-1 in favor of the church, with one member absent.

But church member Roger Barnes said some of the wounds inflicted during the long months of hearings will take a while to heal.

"Our church has been providing for the community for close to 100 years and some of the people who opposed the church expansion have been here less than three," Barnes said. "Now, they're talking about 'their' community and questioning whether have the logistical skills necessary to go forward with this type of large-scale project. It's these kind of implied stereotypical comments that have been incredible to me."

When Oak Ridge Homeowners Association President Kari Ebeling suggested during an earlier hearing that the church relocate to a large plot of land in Elkridge that is within the noise restriction zone of Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Wright accused the opposition of outright racism.

"My response was that that suggestion was no different from what happened to the American Indians hundreds of years ago," Wright said. "You've got these people who come in and just decide that this land is theirs and move the people to a new reservation somewhere. I can tell you that it's not going to happen."

But Ebeling said race should never have been part of the debate.

"The hearings were never a battle of the community against the church," she said. "We were against a land-use issue."

The people who opposed the church's expansion are "very diverse," said Ebeling. "It's important to realize that the opposition wasn't just newcomers. A lot of people who testified at the hearings have lived here all their lives."

She added: "The church should know that it could have been anything that was proposing that they expand -- a Catholic church, a Methodist church -- and we would have opposed."

Now everyone agrees that it is time to move on.

"I can't stress enough how this is not how we would have liked to have worked with the church," Ebeling said. "In the midst of the proceedings, you forget that everyone's human in there and inertia begins to take over. I hope that as time progresses, the opposition will be able to take an active participating role in the community center and the church."

Pub Date: 9/03/98

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