- The Washington Times - Monday, March 25, 2002

Rockville, Md. clergy and other civic leaders are fuming over a city plan to curb encroachment on residential land and limit the ability of churches and other institutions to restore damaged buildings, saying it will restrict religious freedom.
The Rev. Chris Looker of the Rockville Presbyterian Church said the mayor and City Council indicated the ordinance was to "protect the rights of residents of Rockville from institutions in the city."
Saying he was "just dumbfounded and scared," Mr. Looker asked: "What have [we] done to deserve this attack except help the city? Why do residents need to be 'protected' from us?"
But city officials said the issue is larger than that of a church's right to expand that residents have a right to live in neighborhoods free from takeover by newly constructed parking lots.
"The thing we were most worried about is that our zoning code allows institutions to buy neighborhood properties and pave them to the edge to turn them into busy parking lots," said Rockville Mayor Larry Giammo.
"The larger concern here is to protect the interests of homeowners. All we are looking to do is minimize the impact of parking lots inside residential neighborhoods prevent homeowners from waking up and finding their neighboring property has become a parking lot."
The mayor and at least one council member proposed an ordinance last fall to restrict a church or other institution's right to buy nonadjacent property for satellite parking lots. The law would affect about 14 churches, a mental health association, a private school and a day care center. Institutions affected by the ordinance would be grandfathered in to meet new requirements that parking lots must sit 20 feet away from the property lines of single-family homes and be hedged.
But religious leaders say what really has them worried is what would happen if fire or storms damage their buildings. Then, they said, the grandfather clause would be invalid and render them ineligible for new permits to rebuild or expand.
"Put simply, this ordinance would needlessly threaten the survival of many of Rockville's churches, synagogues, child care centers, homeless shelters and mental health clinics," said Mr. Looker.
"Of course, there is no way that our church could ever comply with such a law because of the proximity of our church parking lot, sidewalks and buildings to three detached single-family dwellings we border."
Mr. Giammo said that the ordinance is still in draft mode, and that existing institutions would be allowed to remain as they are even should disaster strike.
"That was a misunderstanding," he said. "We will allow damaged facilities to rebuild without any changes to their existing parking lots."
Pastor Gregory Shannon of Crusader Lutheran Church says he hopes so, but "So far, we haven't gotten consistent answers from the city. They haven't even met with us."
The dispute arose last year after residents of the old Rockville neighborhood of Lincoln Park protested the expansion plans of Mount Calvary Baptist Church. Residents said the church quietly began buying houses in the neighborhood to convert into parking lots. They said the church, made up mostly of nonresidents, never discussed plans with those who lived in the neighborhood.
"This church has been on a mission to buy up houses in the neighborhood for 15 years," said resident Wilma Bell of the Lincoln Park Civic Association. "When we first saw their expansion plans, we were astonished. They are banking on the neighborhood's demise."
Residents and city officials said the church had bought at least a dozen properties and razed one "the same day they received the permit."
Church officials say 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.
"We are working with the council and the community to reach a resolution to the problem," said Herbert Tyson, spokesman for the church. "It is unfortunate that misinformation has caused this matter to snowball into what it is now. We have been in the community 100 years and have a vested interest to help."
He said the revised plan would comply with the ordinance but is "anti-religious because it largely affects religious institutions."
Clergy packed a City Council meeting last week to denounce the legislation. City officials said it was the largest attendance at a council meeting in 30 years.
"The mayor and council were a little taken aback at the reaction from the clergy," said Neil Greenberger, spokesman for the city. "This has been a public process, and we had never heard from the clergy. We heard an element of concern we had not been aware of before. As a result, I would not be surprised if they wanted to reanalyze the amendment and not act right away."
Mr. Giammo agreed and said the legislation would be considered carefully.
"It is our job as city leaders to not be in reactive mode the next time this issue comes up," he said. "We are trying to be proactive."


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