Change opens door for church; County appeals board may revisit expansion


First Baptist Church of Guilford's much-debated expansion plan is getting a second chance.

Less than two weeks after the Howard County Board of Appeals withdrew its endorsement of the church's plan, a board member has changed his vote for the second time, giving the church the opportunity to resubmit a plan as early as this spring.

Board member George L. Layman has withdrawn his vote against the plan and will recuse himself from future proceedings regarding the church. He said his goal is to "spark" a meeting between church leaders and area residents who bitterly opposed the expansion.

"I think the community has to realize that the church is going to be there," Layman said during a phone interview from Philadelphia yesterday. "But I think the church has to realize that the community has some concerns.

"I'm not doing it to be a martyr," he continued. "I'm doing it because it's the right thing to do."

Information sought

The Rev. John Wright, pastor of the church, said members planned a candlelight vigil last night to show solidarity for the expansion plan. The 96-year-old church proposed building a 2,000-seat sanctuary, a 636-space parking lot, and a 34,000-square-foot community center on 8.5 acres at Guilford and Oakland Mills roads.

Wright did not say whether he would alter the plan or start the dialogue Layman seeks. "That's premature at this point," Wright said.

Kari Ebeling, president of the Oak Ridge Homeowners Association, said, "I think the church is going to have to give a lot more information than the first time around."

Layman initially voted to approve the expansion plan, then changed his vote Feb. 11. In a letter dated Tuesday to board Chairman Jerry Rushing, he announced his change, which leaves the board split 2-2 on the plan.

Although that doesn't give the church a green light, it allows it to resubmit its plan right away. Had the denial stood, by law the church would have had to wait two years to reapply, unless it successfully challenged the board's decision in court -- a step Wright has been weighing.

Layman, who is leaving the board and will be replaced by Jacqueline Scott on April 1, said he retracted his vote because he didn't feel comfortable penalizing the church.

"Why run it out two or three years and drive the church and community further apart?" Layman asked rhetorically. "This gives them a second bite of the apple without having to wait. Whether they take advantage is up to them."

Traffic is a worry

Conflict between the church and community heightened when civic activists raised concerns about the traffic, noise and lighting they said would be generated by the expansion.

In September, the board granted tentative permission to the church to develop the site, but the ruling was unofficial until a decision and order was drafted and signed.

When the board met again Feb. 11 to sign the document, Layman reopened the debate by questioning the lack of information about the proposed community center provided to the board by the church.

"We didn't have any hours, we didn't have any uses, we didn't have any intensity of uses," Layman said yesterday. The church "was given plenty of opportunities to do that, and they never did."

Layman's action allowed board member Donald Messenger -- who missed the September vote because of the flu -- to vote against the project, and Layman joined him.

Volunteers from both sides

In his letter to Rushing, Layman acknowledged that he sought volunteer help from two community leaders opposed to the church expansion and several members of the congregation during his unsuccessful campaign for the District 1 County Council seat in November. He said he did not know the volunteers' backgrounds then.

Although Layman said the volunteers had no influence on his decision, at least one neighborhood activist said the board member should have recused himself months before.

"Obviously, I wish that if he was going to recuse himself, he would've done it earlier," said resident Mary Ann Aellen. "It does make it more confusing."

Wright, commenting on Layman's change of heart, said: "When a person does the right thing, I have no problem with that."

Pub Date: 2/25/99

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