Guilford residents reject scaled-down church plan; Building with 1,502 seats still too large, they say


Despite a scaled-back proposal to expand the First Baptist Church of Guilford, a group of nearby residents remains opposed to the project, saying last night that the church is still too large for a residential community.

At a hearing before the Howard County Board of Appeals, residents objected to the latest plans calling for a 1,502-seat church in the 7400 block of Oakland Mills Road -- compared with the current seating capacity of 400.

"We could support a 1,000-seat church and a reduction to the structure," said Kari Ebeling, president of the Oak Ridge Homeowners Association. "But a 1,500-seat church is just too much."

The community's attorney, Thomas Meachum, argued that the proposal to expand from 400 seats to 1,502 would "adversely impact the residential area surrounding it."

"This is not a question about the church expanding, but the expansion has to be compatible with the area," Meachum said.

In May, church officials submitted to the county Department of Planning and Zoning the new proposal being considered by the Board of Appeals. The new proposal also calls for 536 parking spaces. It resulted from residents' complaints that the original proposal -- for a 1,938-seat sanctuary, a community center, and 636 parking spaces -- was too ambitious.

The church dropped the community center from its current proposal, but residents continue to charge that the two plans are too similar.

"We acknowledge that there are some differences," Meachum said. "But this is substantially the same petition. It's the same building, the same height, the same location as before, minus the number of parking spaces and seats."

Church members see things differently. They say that they've waited long enough to accommodate neighbors and the time has come for them to expand.

"We just want to move forward with getting our church built," said Ruby W. Holmes, who attended the hearing. "The church benefits the members, but it also benefits the community as well."

The plan before the Board of Appeals has received the endorsement of the Planning Board, but it was unclear whether Board of Appeals members would give the church the go-ahead.

In February, the board approved the original plan -- but later withdrew its support. That reversal angered the Rev. John L. Wright, the pastor, who argued that the board violated its bylaws by changing its position.

For more than a year, residents have complained about potential traffic congestion posed by the church's largely commuting membership -- for worship services and other events.

Brady G. Daniels, a church trustee for 17 years, said the building would be used only to hold events that are "typically associated with a religious facility."

"We will prove to the board that our plan would not change the character of the community," said Robert Levan, an attorney for the church.

The Board of Appeals will continue its hearing Oct. 7. But Ebeling expressed hope that, in the interim, an agreement could be reached between the church and its neighbors.

"There is nothing more that we would like to see than to find a compromise," she said. "Our community is divided, and this is not a good place for us to be. We need to move forward together."

Pub Date: 9/10/99

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