As Churches Build on Protected Land, Fears of Growth Raised

By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 8, 2008

The Prince William Board of County Supervisors has found it hard to say no to churches.

The board approved an exception late last year for Fireside Wesleyan Church to hook up to a sewer line in an 80,000-acre swath of the county protected from development. At the time, critics said it could lead to growth in the Rural Crescent.

Supervisor John T. Stirrup Jr. (R-Gainesville), whose district includes the largest portion of the Rural Crescent, said Fireside "inappropriately leveraged" its status as a church to gain entry into the preserve. He predicted that other places of worship would seek the same consideration. In March, Park Valley Church sought a zoning change that would allow it to build in the Rural Crescent and hook up to sewer. It, too, was approved.

Counties across the region could increasingly face this concern as churches build on the rural edges of towns with excess agricultural land, according to a recent study. Rapidly growing places of worship are threatening sound planning and contributing to sprawl, the study found.

Generally, as they use limited land, tax-exempt churches are also taking prime real estate, and much needed revenue, off municipalities' rolls.

The larger size and multiple uses of new places of worship pose potential land-use conflicts and burden municipalities' infrastructure, said Sandeep Agrawal, an urban planning professor at Toronto's Ryerson University, who wrote the study.

"Planning practices cannot remain neutral," he said, and lawmakers "cannot be afraid of openly discussing the needs of religious communities."

When churches come before Prince William's board seeking to build on agricultural land protected from development, they often rely on the sympathy vote. Places of worship say they open their doors to the community as meeting places and fill voids left by government social spending cuts.

Besides, church leaders say, they have nowhere else to go.

Fireside bought 15 acres in the Rural Crescent, with plans to build a 23,000-square-foot sanctuary, along with classrooms, a library and a cafe. The church knew sewer hookups are generally off-limits in the preserve to deter dense development.

"We were also aware of the subjective nature of how some supervisors have interpreted the county's comprehensive plan," Pastor Allen Perdue said. "We understood we were taking a risk, but it was calculated."

The board created the crescent-shaped preserve 10 years ago to conserve the last rural reaches of Prince William from encroaching suburbia. The Rural Crescent creates a transition between the county's developed eastern section and rural Fauquier County to west.

It's sometimes called the "Royal Crescent" by critics, who describe it as an elitist haven for $1 million houses with rural vistas of farmland. Zoning laws covering the 120 square miles of the Rural Crescent limit development to one house for every 10 acres. Most of those houses have septic systems.

Slow-growth activists say that denying access to the public sewer system is Prince William's ultimate weapon against sprawl.

At a recent board meeting, the supervisors turned down a couple's request to connect a single-family house it wanted to build to a sewer line in the Rural Crescent. The couple should have done due diligence before buying the land, the supervisors said.

Churches have a place in the Rural Crescent, but allowing them to tap into sewer lines, has a "precedent-setting" effect, Stirrup said.

"It puts the board in an awkward position when other churches come forward," he said.

The supervisors are not poised to tighten land use laws to deal with development in the Rural Crescent. Instead, the board considers projects case by case.

"The problem is, no one trusts government to maintain zoning laws. We're not as consistent as we could be," said Supervisor W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville), who also represents the Rural Crescent. He said the county should have an open discussion about development in the protected area. "Density should be controlled by zoning, not infrastructure," he said.

The lack of rules can work both ways for religious institutions. Churches are usually allowed to locate in areas zoned for business and office space. To operate in a residential or agricultural area, churches have to apply for a special use permit, which requires municipal approval.

In the Frederick County hamlet of Walkersville, a Muslim sect wanted to build a retreat and worship center on the largest farm. But the Town Council passed an ordinance prohibiting building places of worship on land zoned for agricultural uses. The owner of the land sued Walkersville last month, alleging the town conspired to deny the members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community their constitutional right to practice their religion by enacting laws to keep the group out.

Loudoun County has faced a push from churches looking to move into industrial areas. Several places of worship that operate schools and day-care centers have come before the Board of Supervisors seeking special exceptions to locate in Sterling and Ashburn, according to the county planning office.

The Montgomery County Council incurred the wrath of church leaders a few years ago when it voted to ban new public water and sewer service to churches and other federally tax-exempt institutions within the county's 93,000-acre agricultural reserve. Churches and other nonprofit organizations had been exempt from a ban.

Municipalities have to decide where and how to integrate places of worship into neighborhoods, Agrawal said, and must take into account the expanding needs of facilities and the demand for new churches.

"Cities never plan for it. The rules are not stringent. They are based on the merit of the proposal," he said. "That's not a conventional way of planning."

Neighborhoods are best designed when schools, stores, parks and places of worship evolve from the needs of the community, Agrawal said in his study, "New Ethnic Places of Worship and Planning Challenges."

Perdue and his family moved to Northern Virginia in 2001 to lead an effort to build a church in Gainesville. The congregation organized as Fireside in 2005. The 250-member church has never had a permanent home. Although its primary location is the gym at Buckland Mills Elementary School, Fireside holds services at three campuses in the county. It also holds Spanish-language services at a church in Manassas Park.

"Not only were we nomads, but nomads without property," Perdue said of the years the church operated before buying the Rural Crescent site in 2005. "The county doesn't plan for churches in a community. We've been forced to the edge because of development. It pushes us to the fringe."

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