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Neighbors Alarmed by Church Plans

Expansion Would Bring More Traffic, Some Say

By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 10, 2005; Page HO03

On Sundays, Patricia Casal doesn't let her children play outside on their cul-de-sac off St. Johns Lane in Ellicott City. She made that decision one Sunday last year after counting 55 cars turning around on her street, Misty Wood Lane, in a mere 20 minutes. It was a clear signal that services had just concluded at the nearby Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church.

Now Casal is even more worried. The large Korean American congregation on St. Johns wants to add a two-story, multipurpose building and hundreds of parking spaces. That would result in far more traffic congestion, she said.

Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church has a congregation of 2,000 and holds four Sunday services. (Craig Herndon For The Washington Post)

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"They can't think they can just keep adding more and more to our residential street," Casal said. "I'm hoping the church has the opportunity to hear the concerns of the residents."

That's scheduled to happen at 7 p.m. Tuesday when residents and leaders of one of Maryland's largest Korean American churches will meet to discuss the church's proposed rezoning of its land and planned expansion.

The church, which was built in 1988 on 28 acres, wants to rezone out of a residential category that requires that churches go through a detailed hearing process to expand. It is seeking a broader residential zoning category in which there are fewer restrictions on churches.

The congregation of 2,000 Korean- and English-speaking members is planning a building of up to 90,000 square feet that would include a second sanctuary, a gymnasium, classrooms, a nursery, administrative offices and meeting space. Preliminary plans include 500 more parking spaces, and the total cost is estimated between $5 million and $8 million.

Residents said they were surprised by the size of the project and didn't know until a few weeks ago that the church had filed a rezoning case that the County Council is expected to act on by early spring.

"We were not aware of the process ourselves," said Jun Lee, a Bethel deacon who serves on the steering committee for the project. "In hindsight, we should have made more of an effort to communicate. I think the problem is an informational one, really."

What the neighbors have heard so far prompted many of them to turn out for a County Council hearing late last month. Exchanges between residents and representatives of the church continued outside the meeting hall.

"We were really taken aback" by the neighbors' objections, Lee said. "We thought we were being good neighbors."

After that hearing, he added, church leaders met immediately to discuss how they could ease traffic congestion during the congregation's four Sunday services.

Mark Restivo, another Misty Wood Lane resident, said the issue goes beyond traffic. "There's a community around that land," he said. "The growth has to be smart and it has to be well integrated into the community. Otherwise, there will be resentment and there will be alienation."

Neighbors fear they won't have a say about the project if the church's land is rezoned to a residential category that permits nursing homes, day-care facilities and senior apartments along with churches. The advisory Planning Board and the Department of Planning and Zoning have recommended that the church's rezoning be granted.

Planning and Zoning Director Marsha McLaughlin said the board and department heard nothing from residents when they considered the request in December.

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