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Board reverses, votes down church expansion; Congregation shocked; plan opponents pleased


The Howard County Board of Appeals has withdrawn its approval of a controversial expansion plan for the First Baptist Church of Guilford, in an unprecedented reversal that has shocked church leaders.

By a 3-2 vote Thursday night, the board agreed to stop the project because of concerns about traffic and asked board counsel Tom Carbo to redraft a decision and order that had been prepared for the members' signatures.

"Board members have changed their votes before," said Carbo, who has advised the board for the past five years. "But this is the first time after a decision and order has been drafted and presented for signature. It's rare."

On Sept. 2, the five-member board voted 3-1 -- member Donald Messenger was absent because of illness -- to allow the 95-year-old church to build a two-story sanctuary with 2,000 seats, a 34,000-square-foot community center and a 636-space parking lot on an 8-acre site at the northwest corner of Oakland Mills and Guilford roads.

The board's sudden change in opinion delighted community activists who opposed the expansion.

"We didn't think it was a done deal," said Nancy Merckle, president of the Glenshire Towne Homeowners Association, one of several civic organizations that protested the church's plan. "To have it turn around like this was very satisfying."

Added Elisa Roberson, who lives in nearby Oak Ridge: "I wasn't surprised [by the board's decision] because I truly thought that, in the end, what was right would prevail."

Contacted by phone yesterday, the Rev. John L. Wright, pastor of First Baptist, said only, "I don't have any comments at this time. I will have a comment after I meet with my congregation."

Asked if church members were shocked by the board's reversal, church attorney James L. Rouse said, "That's an understatement.

"When you get an oral statement made by the board back in the September and find some of the people on that board reversing the decision," he continued, "needless to say, it's not satisfying."

Leaders of First Baptist, which has been planning an expansion for about three years, had argued that the 1,400-member church was outgrowing its building and would reach 3,000 by 2010.

After the county Planning Board endorsed the expansion in March, the Board of Appeals listened to five months of testimony from church leaders and community activists.

In September, board chairman Jerry Rushing and members James Pfefferkorn and George L. Layman approved the proposal. Board member Robert C. Sharps was the dissenting vote.

But on Thursday, Layman reopened the debate when he acknowledged that a board-imposed condition to limit the community center's parking lot to half full was unenforceable, according to Thomas M. Meachum, an attorney who represented several civic organizations concerned about the expansion.

Messenger, who missed the first vote, rejected the expansion, and Layman changed his mind, apparently stopping the project.

Board members are barred from talking about a case until a revised decision and order are drafted and signed, but Meachum said the board was not persuaded by the church's case.

"The church provided very minimal information about the activities at the community center," he said. "[The board] seemed to have concerns giving a carte blanche to a building that large without a comfort level about the activities there."

Kari Ebeling, president of the Oak Ridge Homeowners Association, said residents near the church expressed concerns about traffic, noise and lighting that would be generated by the expansion.

Ebeling said the community does not harbor any animosity toward the church and would welcome a dialogue with church leaders if they reduced the scope of the project.

"I would think that the church has an opportunity to come back and work with the community," she said. "I wish there could've been a compromise where both sides could feel like they accomplished something."

Rouse, the church attorney, said his clients can appeal the board's decision to the Circuit Court or resubmit a different plan. He also expressed optimism that the board might reverse its decision again.

"They changed their minds in one six-month period," Rouse said. "They can certainly change their minds again."

Pub Date: 2/13/99

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