Hearing on church expansion runs short


A church striving for the past half-decade to become Howard County's largest - to the frustration of some neighbors - is back for another try after a tangled web of hearings and court appeals.

First Baptist Church of Guilford, with a congregation of nearly 2,000, is hoping to triple its seating capacity to 1,502 - part of a wave of expansions in fast-growing Howard.

More than 100 members of First Baptist and about a half-dozen neighbors with misgivings about the proposed expansion packed the county hearing examiner's meeting room last night, most standing because of the lack of space and angry about the tight squeeze.

They didn't have to stand long. Two opponents of the expansion filed motions requesting that Hearing Examiner Thomas P. Carbo recuse himself from the case, alleging a conflict of interest because he represented the county when neighbors appealed an earlier vote.

Carbo, saying the county Board of Appeals must decide whether to recuse him, promptly ended the hearing.

"All these tactics are well-designed to slow down the momentum," said the Rev. John L. Wright, First Baptist's pastor. "We're not discouraged. ... We're not going to sound the trumpet for retreat."

The church, built on 9 acres at Oakland Mills and Guilford roads, is surrounded by subdivisions. Some neighbors have argued that a 1,000-seat church would be more appropriate than the one sought by First Baptist; its current building seats about 500, Wright said.

"It's a long time, and I'm sure the church is impatient," said Oliver Edwards, a Guilford resident for 16 years who is helping lead the opposition.

"It seems appropriate that they should grow. When the neighborhood association sat down with the church to talk about their petition in 1998, we said that we could certainly support something that had a sanctuary for 1,000 and maybe 350 parking spaces. But this is a large, intense development. There's bound to be more traffic than an ordinary neighborhood church would generate."

Long-running fight

The path to yesterday's hearing has been long and strange.

In 1998, church leaders asked permission to build an addition that would have brought the building's capacity to 2,000 seats, with about 640 parking spaces. The Board of Appeals voted to approve the request that year, then - before a formal decision was signed - reversed itself. A few weeks later, the board voted again, deadlocked and decided to dismiss the petition.

In 1999, the church and opponents appealed to Circuit Court, which ruled that the board's dismissal was a denial. While waiting for the judge's decision, First Baptist won approval before the Board of Appeals for new plans that called for 1,502 seats and about 540 parking spaces.

Opponents again appealed to Circuit Court, and last year Judge Lenore R. Gelfman overturned the approval, so First Baptist is starting anew.

Gelfman noted that petitioners whose requests are denied must wait two years before coming back with a plan that is substantially the same. She ruled that church leaders reduced their seating in theory only because the second plan calculated more space per seat - 24 inches instead of 18 - but both called for the same amount of additional square feet.

Growth spurt

Wright said the church needs more space to prepare for growth in a county where it seems inevitable. "We're not really building this for us; we're building for the future," he said.

George W. Martin, who is president of the Columbia Cooperative Ministry and tracks religious facilities' growth in Howard County, said he thinks the largest church in Howard County is Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City, which seats 980 and serves a parish of more than 12,000. St. Louis Roman Catholic Church in Clarksville, which seats 650, is planning a building to accommodate more than 1,000 people.

Martin said it is common for neighbors to protest when churches try to expand. First Baptist's plans wouldn't make it nearly as big as some, he said.

"There's quote mega-churches in Korea that are close to a million people, and they have about 40 or 50 services on a Sunday," Martin said.

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