Prince George's County has approved plans to build a church in a small community near Seat Pleasant, but has reserved the right to review site plans after neighbors voiced fears that the building would be used as a rehabilitation center.
The pastor of the New Life Assembly Church, whose 150-member congregation has been operating out of a nearby elementary school for six years, wants to construct a church building on 20 acres of land along Central Avenue that he purchased earlier this year.
The church also operates Teen Challenge, a rehabilitation group for troubled youths, but spokesmen for the religious organization said the new church building would not be used for Teen Challenge activities.
Churches are permitted by right in all zones in Prince George's, but because the 20 acres is part of an old subdivision, the church had to go before the county planning board for approval to create a new, single lot, said Dean Armstrong, development coordinator for the county.
The board then reserved the right to review the church's site plans, which could allow it to impose conditions on the operation of the church pertaining to its use and hours, Armstrong said.
Residents near the site said they welcome a church in the neighborhood, but fear the building will ultimately be used for programs, like Teen Challenge, that are not compatible with the area's mostly residential use.
"I am a Christian and I support a church," said Ella Kohlhern, who runs a day care center for 273 children next to the site on Central Avenue. "But when the director of the church is the director of Teen Challenge, I feel that Teen Challenge will become the soul of the church.
"A rehabilitation center will downgrade this area," she said.
Residents of dozens of other communities throughout the Washington area have voiced similar concerns about churches proposed for their neighborhoods as churches nationwide redefine and increase their roles in society.
No longer used exclusively for daily services and Sunday schools, churches now are just as likely to be the sites of shelters, soup kitchens, rehabilitation centers and other programs aimed at helping the poor and troubled.
In Fairfax County, concern over the use of churches became so great that the county recently wrote controversial language into its zoning code that defined "church" in language that is very similar to a definition of churches that Prince George's already has in its code.
"Basically, it says that a church is a building that's used primarily for religious services, and also programs traditionally conducted by churches," said Armstrong. "That's really open to interpretation."
However, whereas churches in Fairfax are allowed only with a special exception permit from the board of zoning appeals, churches in Prince George's are allowed by right, meaning a church group needs only to apply for a building permit.
There are exceptions, as in the case of the proposed New Life Assembly Church, which is planned for land that has already been incorporated into a subdivision. Armstrong said other parcels of land in the county have provisions that require planning board approval before they can become developed.
"We are not as stringent as some jurisdictions, and we are maybe a little more so than others," said Armstrong, who said the county receives about four or five building applications for new churches every year. "Fortunately, we have had few problems with neighbors."
Mike Zello Jr., evangelism director for the New Life Assembly Church, said many of the Seat Pleasant neighbors' fears are groundless.
"Our plans are for nothing more than a church, and maybe, someday, a parsonage," said Zello. "We promise that Teen Challenge won't be there."
After the church works out problems with the neighbors, it may have a larger one on its hand. A right of way for a Metro subway runs through the property, right smack where directors had hoped to place the church.
Metro officials said this week that Prince George's had obtained the right of way for a future date when Metro might be expanded to Largo, but said the route so far is not planned and far from funded.
Zello said the church hopes to get the county to shift the right of way so that its church building can face Central Avenue.
"We want to be right there on the road where people can see us," he said.