Church-site battle takes new twist; Appeals board member recuses himself from ruling on expansion; Rescinded vote leaves tie; He regrets not quitting in 1998; says he's tired of flak from both sides


After changing his vote twice on an embattled expansion plan for a Guilford church, George L. Layman now agrees with his critics: He should have steered clear of the entire debate.

"I could have walked away," Layman said Friday, recalling how he had tried to resign from the Howard County Board of Appeals at the end of June, but was talked out of it.

Layman finds himself in the middle of a newly revived debate over First Baptist Church of Guilford's expansion proposal, which many neighbors strongly oppose. After voting for the plan, then voting against it, Layman reversed course again last week and said he was withdrawing his vote -- apparently leaving the board split 2-2.

Adding fuel to the debate, Layman revealed a seeming conflict last week: Opponents of the proposal and church members did volunteer work for his unsuccessful campaign last year for county council, he said.

There's more confusion than ever over the fate of the expansion plan.

Opponents of the plan say the board should issue a denial, forcing the church under county rules to wait at least two years before it can re-apply. Supporters hope they can resubmit a plan soon and that Layman's replacement -- he will leave the board a month from now -- votes for it.

Both sides seem angry with Layman.

"George should've said no" when board members talked him out of retirement, said Thomas M. Meachum, an attorney representing a group of community activists opposed to the church expansion. "He should've insisted that his resignation was final. He didn't do the church any favors."

Added the Rev. John L. Wright, pastor of First Baptist: "He should have excluded himself entirely from the process. You cannot bounce back and forth like a revolving door."

Layman says he regrets causing the confusion, but did not violate any ethical standards.

"Let them say what they want to say," Layman said. "It doesn't bother me."

The dispute began last March when the church asked the board to allow construction of 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.

Several nearby homeowners associations questioned the amount of traffic, noise and lighting that would be generated by the expansion, and tension quickly arose between church leaders and community activists.

In September, the board approved the plan 3-1, which is not official until a decision and order is signed.

Board chair Jerry L. Rushing and members James W. Pfefferkorn and Layman endorsed the proposal, while Robert C. Sharps was the lone dissenter. Member Donald B. Messenger was absent because he was ill with the flu.

Debate reopened

Appointed by the County Council, board members can serve a maximum of two consecutive five-year terms and are paid $45 a hearing.

At a Feb. 11 work session at which the board was to sign a decision and order approval of the plan, Layman reopened deliberations. He expressed doubt that the county Department of Planning and Zoning could enforce a voluntary agreement by the church restricting the number of cars that could use the parking lot.

Because Messenger was present at the work session, he was permitted to register his disapproval of the project. And Layman, who inquired about a lack of information regarding activities at the proposed community center, changed his vote from approval to denial.

Vote withdrawn

On Tuesday, however, Layman sent a two-page letter to Rushing to announce that he was withdrawing his previous vote and recusing himself from future proceedings regarding the church.

Layman acknowledged that two members of the opposition had done volunteer work for him during his unsuccessful bid for the District 1 County Council seat. He said Oak Ridge Homeowners Association president Kari Ebeling and Guilford Residents Association treasurer Mary Ann Aellen distributed Democratic Party literature at two elementary schools in Ellicott City.

Ebeling said that she and Aellen supported Layman's campaign promise to reduce the number of waivers granted by the Department of Planning and Zoning.

"We didn't see it as big deal," Ebeling said of their participation. "If we thought it would be, we would've stayed away from it."

'Like Judas Iscariot'

Layman also said that several members of the church were volunteers for his campaign and that Wright offered his aid at an NAACP dinner at the Rouse Center in Columbia last year.

But Wright said he doesn't remember seeing Layman at the dinner and challenged him to name the volunteers.

"Knowing his policies, knowing his disposition toward the church, why would we join his camp?" Wright asked. "That's like Judas Iscariot selling Jesus out."

Layman said that his withdrawal will allow the church to resubmit a plan within six months instead of having to wait the two years that a board-issued denial would require.

But Meachum, attorney for the opponents and who served as counsel to the board from 1985 to 1990, cited a 1986 case in which a 2-2 board deadlock was treated as a denial. He said board bylaws require that any petition be approved, disapproved or approved with conditions.

'Have to make a decision'

"They can't make no decision, they have to make a decision," he said. "The idea that a tie is no action is incorrect."

Tom Carbo, the board's counsel, said he intends to draft a one-page decision and order announcing no decision.

"As long as I've been here, 2-to-2 has always been a tie," said Carbo, who has been providing legal advice to the board for six years. "The rule says that we can only act with a majority. So how can we reconcile anything with just two votes?"

Layman said he is tired of catching flak from both sides and wants to quietly leave April 1, when he will be replaced by Jacqueline C. Scott, a lawyer who lives in Columbia.

His decision to rescind his vote "had nothing to do with the election, and it had nothing to do with a black church," Layman said. "I tried to do the right thing."

Pub Date: 2/28/99

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