Church Expansion Runs Afoul of Zoning Regs

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Church Expansion Runs Afoul of Zoning Regs

Oakville, MD - 1/15/2012

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By Dick Myers

The Faith Bible Church trailer would be removed under the expansion plans.
The Faith Bible Church trailer would be removed under the expansion plans.

Faith Bible Church in Oakville has expansion plans. Pastor Robert McNutt says the congregation has doubled in four years and they are bulging at the seams. ”We are very humble and thankful to the Lord for our growth, but it has added some issues with our building,” he said. 

Unfortunately for the church they have run afoul of some very secular concerns: the St. Mary’s County Zoning Ordinance. Church representatives appeared before the St. Mary’s County Board of Appeals Thursday night to try to resolve those issues. They left the meeting with some options but with nothing settled.
Faith Bible Church sits on just a little over four acres on Route 235 in Oakville just across from the Sandgates Road intersection. The existing church of 4,405 square feet was constructed in 1993. To accommodate growth a 1,440-square-foot trailer was placed on the property. It is in the Rural Preservation District (RPD) and meets the regulations for that district.
At the time of the church construction, the only requirement for a church was that the property be four acres. In 2002 that requirement was removed and instead replaced by what is known as a Floor Area Ratio (FAR) calculation. The actual floor area of the building is divided by the size of the lot to come up with a FAR. Buildings in the RPD were limited to a .05 FAR.
The church plans to remove the trailer. After revising the size down slightly, the new addition will bring the size of the church to 12,961 square-feet, over the allowable FAR for the property. The new building would accommodate 478 parishioners, allowing for additional expansion from their current 350-person congregation.
There are two ways that the church can circumvent the regulations: by buying development rights from another property owner or constructing a LEED Certified “green building.” The development rights would cost the church $40,000 to $80,000. The green building would be even more expensive, according to the church consulting engineer, Ken Crouse of Crouse Engineering of Waldorf.
McNutt told the appeals board members that his church is very involved in the community, hosting a homeless shelter, addiction counseling and food pantry. Crouse said the church would rather provide services to the community than spend the money on extraneous issues.
Phil Shire, recently appointed as director of Land User and Growth Management (LUGM), said staff has had discussions over the years about the situation. There is the belief that the FAR calculation was not really intended to cover non-profit organizations, such as churches, but only commercial establishments.
Yvonne Chaillet, LUGM zoning administrator, said the FAR calculations would affect all non-profits, such as fire departments and rescue squads wishing to expand.
At one point in the hearing, the board’s attorney George Sparling interrupted and said it occurred to him that the church seeking a variance to the FAR regulations was not the right way to proceed. Instead he suggested that the church appeal the planning director’s decision to deny the request. Staff had recommended denial of the application. Chaillet said, however, the church would still not be assured of getting a favorable decision.
Variances are only allowed when certain criteria are met, such as problems with the lot configuration. There seemed to be some belief that the board would have a difficult time justifying a variance.
Shire instead offered another alternative: a change in the zoning ordinance to remove non-profits from the FAR calculation. He said that process would take 125 days, including a planning commission and county commissioner hearing
After listening to all of the discussion, the church’s attorney, Steve Scott of La Plata, asked that the application for a variance be withdrawn. He said he would work with LUGM staff and the county attorney to try to work out an alternate solution. The church pastor and his congregation, in the meantime, were left with praying that some solution can be reached.

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