County approves plans for 2,000-seat church


The Baltimore County Board of Appeals approved plans yesterday for a 2,000-seat church in a cornfield at the Carroll County line, dealing a blow to neighbors, county planners and environmental officials who opposed the size and location of the building.

The decision expands a 1999 ruling by county Zoning Commissioner Lawrence R. Schmidt that allowed Carroll Community Church to build a 1,200-seat sanctuary on a 70-acre tract at Mount Gilead and Emory roads (Route 91). The plans include an athletic field, classrooms and a lodge with sleeping accommodations.

The three-member board deliberated for almost three hours, often expressing concern about potential traffic problems. But the panel agreed unanimously that the church is a permitted use in an agricultural zone with a "special exception," which the board approved.

"If this is what they need, who are we to say they can't do it?" said board member Charles Marks. Marks explained that he was voting to approve the larger church because county law allows it, not because he thought it was appropriate for the property. "My personal view is the church is too big for the site," he said. "But that's personal."

The board also concluded that county law exempts the congregation from lengthy public hearings by the zoning commissioner to review the development plans. The church needs only to file its plans with the appropriate county officials for final approval.

The ruling, said the church's pastor, the Rev. Joseph Duke, shows that the congregation "had a strong case." He said he hopes to break ground within two years. Parishioners worship at Liberty High School in Carroll County.

George Harman, president of the Hanover Road Association, which had asked that the size of the sanctuary be scaled back, said he did not know whether the community will appeal. "This decision is a monument to the ultimate destruction of RC 2 land," he said, referring to the county's agricultural zone, enacted in the 1970s to protect farmland.

County planners and environmental officials had opposed the church, saying it would put a "large-scale urban facility in a rural community" and eliminate productive farmland. Local residents, concerned about traffic, had asked the board to reduce the number of seats to 500. But the board said it saw no reason to limit the number.

Marks and board member Donna Felling said the church could snarl traffic on the area's two-lane roads Sundays. The board's decision included several suggestions, including one for a study on the need for a traffic light.

Felling expressed "a real concern" about the church's potential impact on neighboring farms. She said church traffic could make it difficult for farmers to move their tractors, a chore usually performed Sundays.

"So they'll move [them] some other time," said board Chairman Lawrence M. Stahl, who favored the plans with few reservations.

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