- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 4, 2002

Rockville, Md. leaders say they are reconsidering plans to curb expansion on residential land by churches and other institutions and limit their ability to rebuild damaged buildings, noting outrage from clergy and civic leaders last month.
"In many respects, we are starting the ballgame all over again," said city spokesman Neil Greenberger. "The mayor is in the process of setting up meetings with individual clergy to discuss the text amendment and where the churches fit into the scheme of Rockville activities. We want to hear from everyone."
Mr. Greenberger said a City Council vote on the issue is months away, because city leaders want to re-examine the issue.
Last month, 100 irate clergy members jammed a City Council meeting on the issue, saying the legislation threatened their churches' survival and freedom of religion.
"What have we done to deserve this attack, except help the city?" the Rev. Chris Looker, pastor of Rockville Presbyterian Church, said in an interview.
The dispute arose last year after residents of the old Rockville neighborhood of Lincoln Park began protesting expansion plans by Mount Calvary Baptist Church, a neighborhood church.
Residents said the church quietly began buying houses in the neighborhood to demolish them to make way for parking lots. They said the church, made up mostly of nonresidents, never discussed plans with those who lived in the neighborhood. Church officials said they have tried to work with the neighborhood and have revised their plans to expand only on the adjacent five properties and close in the parking lots, as required by the proposed ordinance.
Mayor Larry Giammo and at least one council member proposed an ordinance last fall to restrict churches' or other institutions' right to buy nonadjacent property for satellite parking lots. City officials said the issue is larger than that of a church's right to expand that residents have a right to live in a neighborhood free from takeover by newly constructed parking lots.
The ordinance would affect about 14 churches, a mental health association and two private schools and day care centers. Institutions affected by the ordinance would be grandfathered in to meet a new requirement that current parking lots sit at least 20 feet away from a single-family home's property line and be hedged.
But what religious leaders say really has them worried is what would happen if something happened to their buildings, such as fire or storm damage. Then the grandfathering clause would be invalid and render them ineligible to gain a new permit to rebuild or expand, they say.
City leaders said last week that the ordinance is still in draft form and existing institutions would be allowed to remain as they are even if disaster should befall them.


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