A Fairfax County civic association is taking the county's board of zoning appeals to court over what the association claims is an improper definition of a church.

The Lemon Road Civic Association, which represents residents of the Falls Church/McLean area along Great Falls Street near Kirby and Idylwood roads, has challenged the recent approval by the BZA of a special permit to allow construction of a new Mormon church in their neighborhood.

The civic group filed its appeal in the circuit court in Fairfax in mid-November, but the legal papers were not served on county attorney David T. Stitt until last Tuesday. By law, the association had 30 days to file an appeal of the BZA's decision.

In Fairfax, churches are allowed to exist in residential neighborhoods, but must gain a special permit to do so from the BZA.

The present problem apparently centers on a controversy over the precise definition of a church. Members of the civil association are contending that the facility proposed by the Mormon Church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) isn't really a church.

"The whole feeling has been that we are perfectly willing to have a church in the community. If you look at this thing that is proposed . . . . , it's large enough for conventions," explained Conrad Clark, president of the civic group.

"We just think it is substantially more than a church, it is a conference center," Clark said.

J. C. Richards, a leader in the area Mormon stake -- which is comparable to a diocese in the Catholic Church -- called the suit "groundless, without merit."

The BZA recently granted a permit for the church at the intersection of Great Falls Street and Kirby Road after a series of community meetings between church members and areas residents. The proposed church building is to be constructed at the intersection of Kirby Road and Great Falls Street. Kirby becomes Idylwood at that intersection.

Charles Shumate, attorney for the church and the three property owners involved in the sale of the land to the church, said he "thinks the BZA sought to accommodate the citizens of the area with a major reduction in the parking being sought from 404 spaces to 300 spaces when the BZA decision was made."

The suit is filed solely against the BZA and not against the church, the lawyer said.

However, Shumate said, "It would be appropriate for the various property owners and the applicant the Mormon Church to intervene as a defendant in the case."

Both Shumate and Richards said the fact that the suit challenges the validity of the proposed structure as a church is "groundless."

The project had the backing of the McLean Citizens Association, as long as certain conditions involving buffers and reduction in parking spaces were part of the final plan. Both of those issues were addressed, Shumate said.

Clark said the suit is challenging the presumption that the proposed facility is a church.

"It is a conference center," Clark said. "The BZA does not have the power to issue a permit for a conference center in a residential neighborhood. A conference center application would be subject to a special exception," he said.

Special exceptions in Fairfax must be granted by the Board of Supervisors, not by the BZA.

Clark said his association also contends that they were denied access to information in the court records.

"There were things in there we had no opportunity to review before the hearing. There was a traffic study prepared by the church. We asked for it and were refused," Clark said.

The question of whether the project is legally a church was, in the opinion of some county officials, determined when the original application was filed.

At that time, zoning administrator Philip Yates ruled that the proposed facility was a church.

During debates over the issue residents complained that it was a "regional conference center."

Members of the church do plan to use the facility two or three times a year for major meetings that generally attract members of their faith from all over the Arlington, Falls Cnurch and McLean areas. The facility will seat 367.