The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has rejected a proposal that would have allowed churches to be built in residential areas without public hearings being held.

The proposal, supported by most religious denominations--including the local Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian congregations--but vehemently opposed by homeowners, would have marked the first time that a specific group was exempted from the county's zoning requirement.

Voting 7 to 3, the board agreed with arguments by homeowner groups that the proposal to permit church construction "by right" would set a bad precedent for other development applications.

"Granting one group of developers special privileges over other Fairfax County developers would establish unfair practices," said Craig Musik, president of the Burke Center Conservancy, an association representing nearly 6,000 homeowners in Burke.

Local church officials had complained that the current process is burdensome and costly, and often leads to contentious battles with residents who one church leader described as "extortionists."

"It would reduce the uncertainty of the current system and also reduce subjectivity," said Bill Robson, spokesman for Network for Places of Worship, a group formed by churches to push for the zoning change. "Furthermore, it would not subject the places of worship to the often outrageous demands of the neighbors."

Currently, requests to build or renovate a church must go through a lengthy approval process that includes a public hearing before the county's Board of Zoning Appeals. Under the rejected proposal, a church that adhered to certain guidelines, such as limits on the height of the building and providing adequate parking, would have been approved automatically.

Several homeowner association officials argued that granting by-right approval would deny citizens their right to raise concerns, and defended the practice of allowing neighbors to exact concessions from church developers.

"We do not oppose churches and do not question the need," said Bill McCarron, president of the 22182 Council & Lewinsville Coalition, which represents nine homeowner groups in the Route 7 corridor. "But we do oppose any ordinance which would allow nonresidential uses in residential zoned areas without public hearings or comment. It would remove any incentive that churches have to negotiate with residents concerning appropriate development conditions, as they have historically done in the past."

Hoping to sway the supervisors, several church officials at the Monday night hearing also emphasized the special role churches play in the community.

"I cannot think of any kind of land use that does so much for their community and asks for so little, but is subject to such a burdensome review," said Robson.

Hoping to appease the church groups, supervisors agreed to appoint an ombudsman to work with church applicants and affected neighbors to resolve differences.

In addition, the supervisors asked county staff to review the possibility of expediting church applications, similar to developments proposed for areas designated for revitalization.

Action on a second proposal, to have the supervisors and not the zoning board approve church applications, was deferred. Church groups argue that such a switch would politicize the process. While supervisors are elected, members of the zoning appeals board are appointed by the court.