As Churches Build on Protected Land, Fears of Growth Raised

By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 8, 2008; Page B04

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.

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