SHORT OF HEAVING their bodies in front of bulldozers, lawmakers in Prince George’s County have spent years trying everything in their power, and some things clearly beyond their power, to stop a congregation of Seventh-day Adventists known as Reaching Hearts from building a new church. After a campaign lasting the better part of a decade, their efforts have cost county taxpayers millions of dollars while failing to deter the church, which continues to press its case.
The wisest course would be to give Reaching Hearts a green light. Instead, the all-Democratic County Council continues to throw obstacles in the church’s path, all in the name of unbridled, unjustified NIMBYism.
The council’s stance perpetuates Prince George’s image as a risky, fickle place to do business. It is also costly. In addition to a $3.7 million judgment Prince George’s was ordered to pay after losing a discrimination case in federal court, the county now faces mounting legal fees that will reach tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars. That money would have been better used for schools, police officers and social services.
The church’s ordeal began in 2002 when it purchased land in West Laurel, in northern Prince George’s, to build a permanent home to replace the rented space it uses a few miles away. Reaching Hearts is no super-church — on a particularly busy Saturday, when it holds services, it may draw 600 or 700 people. Still, its plan to erect a sanctuary, school and gymnasium spurred opposition from homeowners in West Laurel, a bucolic community near the Montgomery County border.
Neighbors offered an array of specious reasons for opposing the church, ranging from size (no bigger than many suburban churches), impact on traffic (minor) and environmental risk to a nearby reservoir (utterly unsupported by evidence). In fact, less than a half-mile down the road, in Montgomery County, another sizable house of worship, Bethany Community Church, has stood for a decade with no ill effects. Nonetheless, Prince George’s lawmakers, ignoring the advice of county agencies, arbitrarily blocked Reaching Hearts.
After a fruitless attempt to overturn that decision in state court, Reaching Hearts sued in U.S. District Court, saying the county had discriminated on religious grounds. The court agreed in 2008, citing damning statements by the church’s opponents and noting that the council had approved other projects near the reservoir. The county appealed and lost.
Even after those defeats, the council continued raising the same phony environmental objections rejected by the federal court. Incensed, U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus threatened in July to hold the council in contempt of court.
That got the council’s attention. But instead of giving the church the go-ahead, it approved a limited change allowing the church to build on barely a fifth of its 17-acre property, about half what it wants. The case is now likely to drag on, to the benefit of no one but the lawyers.
The council should stop throwing good money after bad. By arbitrarily blocking the church, it does the bidding of a tiny number of die-hard neighbors while needlessly running up the bill for hundreds of thousands of Prince George’s taxpayers.