Council rejects church pact

The Baltimore Sun

The Anne Arundel County Council has rejected a settlement that would have relieved the county of a $3 million lawsuit, but at the same time would have eased zoning laws and allowed a church to build a school on an environmentally sensitive plot of land.

The County Council voted unanimously during Monday night's meeting against a measure that would have relaxed zoning laws to allow Riverdale Baptist Church to build a school on a 57-acre tract near the Jug Bay Wetlands in Lothian. By refusing the settlement, which called for church leaders to drop their lawsuit claiming religious discrimination and the county to pay as much as $300,000, the county now will have to contend with the consequences of a potentially multimillion-dollar lawsuit.

"In the past many years, we have built in Anne Arundel County a Muslim academy, a Christian academy ... . This is not an issue of discrimination," said Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks, a Republican from Severn, before casting his "No" vote. "This is an issue of environment and safety."

Robert Showers, an attorney representing the church in its lawsuit, did not return a call seeking comment.

County Attorney Jonathan Hodgson had urged lawmakers to approve the settlement to avoid a potentially costly payout and expensive legal fees. The lawsuit has already cost the county about $70,000.

"There's no longer any valid settlement under discussion," Hodgson said. "We will return to building our defense to the litigation."

Asked if he was disappointed by the council's rejection of the settlement, Hodgson said, "I am the county's lawyer. It's my job to give advice to the county and, like any client, they can take the lawyer's advice or not. I trust the council's judgment, and we will do what we have to do now. We do have substantial defenses. We believe their allegations are without merit. We have both the law and the facts on our side."

Riverdale filed the lawsuit in October 2006, after the County Council designated 23 roads in the southern part of the county as "scenic and historic," and severely limited zoning in the area. The church officials, who run a school just across the county line in Upper Marlboro and wanted to expand, claimed discrimination. Since 2002, school officials had tried in vain to get permits to build a 31,000-square-foot school in the county.

Environmental activists and residents living near the 57-acre site have objected to construction on the land, arguing the area lacks adequate infrastructure to handle increased car and bus traffic, and a large-scale building on that site is not compatible with the area's rural character.

Under the church's plan, the school would enroll 300 students and add up to 600 trips a day on nearby roads.

Also during Monday's meeting, the council heard public comments on two pieces of legislation that are set for a vote on January 5: the expansion of a tax credit for solar panels and a requirement that waterfront homeowners replace their septic systems to help prevent runoff.

Alan Friedman, the county's governmental relations director, testified that the county wanted to take a more "conservative approach" to tax credits, especially in this tough economic climate.

"We are concerned about tax credits because, of course, they do take money out of the system," Friedman said.

County Councilman Joshua Cohen, a Democrat from Annapolis who is sponsoring the solar tax credit legislation, said it accomplishes three things: clarifying that the tax credit applies to solar electric, caps the amount of the tax credit to $2,500 and sunsets the expanded definition of the tax credit.

Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Republican from Pasadena, said, "I don't foresee thousands of people coming out to take advantage of this in light of the economy because, remember, you have to outlay this system."

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