Two Guilfords must put heads together on church


IN HOWARD COUNTY are two Guilfords. As you travel south on Oakland Mills Road just past Columbia, you reach the first one.

There's Guilford Elementary on the left. Before integration, it was the black school. Nearby are modest frame houses, most more than 30 years old, many occupied by the descendants of sharecroppers and farm workers who populated the area a hundred years ago.

Two structures dominate the neighborhood: the Dora Mack Carter Christian Center and across the parking lot, its parent, the First Baptist Church of Guilford.

A tidy structure of beige brick with a white steeple, the church is not very imposing. Its construction in 1971 was praised by congregants whose ancestors first gathered as a Baptist mission before the turn of the century.

First Baptist sits at Oakland Mills and Guilford roads, the latter once a main thoroughfare to U.S. 1. Nearby Route 32 and Interstate 95 are the busier roads now. But traffic can get thick on Oakland Mills and Guilford as commuters use them to reach the major arteries.

The other Guilford

Largely invisible to passing motorists on either of these streets is the other Guilford, an enclave of greater prosperity, replete with cul de sacs. Tucked away, just up Ridgeview Drive, are new houses on half-acre lots whose residents don't share the history of old Guilford. In appearance, these upscale houses more closely resemble Columbia.

For the most part, the two Guilfords get along. But for two years, one issue has stood in the way of closer ties.

It is the church. First Baptist wants to expand. It wants a bigger sanctuary, a bigger parking lot and a bigger community center.

Old Guilford -- many of its residents members of the church -- supports the idea.

New Guilford -- many of whose residents think of themselves as Columbians -- think the church's plans are too big. They worry about traffic, noise, outdoor lights and the activities that will occur in the new community center.

The two sides fought over the expansion plans all last year. But the project was approved by the county Planning Board. After considering the matter, the county Zoning Board of Appeals in September gave the church the green light, too.

Unexpected turn

All the board had to do was sign its order. Instead it reopened the case a week and a half ago and this time voted down the project.

Two things bothered board members. One was an apparently unenforceable stipulation that the church use only half of its new 636 parking spaces when it holds nonreligious events. The other was concern that the size and programs of the community center aren't clear.

The first problem shouldn't have been a project killer.

Enforceable or not, the church had given its word that it would abide by the parking stipulation. First Baptist has always been a good neighbor. It fought to preserve homes when others coveted the community for light industry. There is no reason to believe the church would renege on its promise.

The other issue isn't as simple. Some opponents of the project have made disparaging remarks about programs that would bring troubled juveniles, the homeless or addicts to the community. But people with such problems are exactly who First Baptist wants to help. Indeed, it already does at the church and the Carter center.

Providing greater details about the programs it wants in the new center won't ease the minds of those who fear the clients such a facility might serve. But the church can't hide its plans for the center if it wants to see it built.

The appeals board vote doesn't mean the project is dead. The church could take its case to court. But the board could reopen the case before that happens if convinced the issues that led to a negative vote have been resolved.

For that to happen, the two Guilfords must do something they have yet to accomplish: Talk to one another.

Heard, but didn't listen

Zoning hearings in this case saw two sides who heard each other but never listened. Mistrust stands in the way of their agreement on parking. It blocks acceptance of a community center that could provide recreational and other programs that the neighborhood needs.

First Baptist has 1,400 members. It predicts 3,000 by 2010.

Its proposal to expand its sanctuary from 400 to 1,900 seats can't be written off as another misguided effort to put a megachurch in a community that doesn't want it. First Baptist has been part of the community for 100 years.

But its longevity doesn't mean First Baptist can ignore concerns of newer residents. The church must work harder to help newcomers understand it wouldn't harm the community.

Residents need to see the church as a good neighbor when they consider what it wants to do.

It's a matter of trust, which is a matter of good leadership. There hasn't been enough of that either.

Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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