Town moves toward church zoning limits

Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2005

More than two years since the issue sprung to life in the quiet, canopied town of Washington Grove, leaders expect to vote soon on a zoning ordinance that would restrict the development of churches, schools and nonprofits to prevent increased traffic in the pedestrian-friendly town.

‘‘I’m confident it’s close to being voted on and more than likely passed,” said Darrell Anderson, one of six members on the town council of Washington Grove, a wooded hamlet near Gaithersburg.

The ordinance would give the town’s planning commission and board of zoning appeals power to modify development plans by religious, educational and nonprofit organizations that could draw more traffic into the town.

The measure, proposed in November 2004, answered concerns among residents over an ultimately scrapped plan by the Washington Grove United Methodist Church to build a school for up to 50 students on its property in the center of town in 2003.

The proposal upset church leaders, who said it would unfairly limit their mission in a town known as much for its religious roots as for its sanctuary from urban sprawl.

But the church, whose membership is waning, has fallen silent in its opposition to a measure they haven’t the resources to fight and whose passing they believe is inevitable, according to the church’s pastor, leaving little resistance to the measure.

‘‘We assumed the town was going to go ahead with it,” the Rev. Patrick Malone said.

Though they had been negotiating with the town until last spring, he said, ‘‘It became apparent to us that we were at a crossroads in our thinking.”

Town leaders have said they never intended to restrict the church’s mission, only the impact its mission could have on the town at large, and that they’ve done their best to engage the church, whose number of Sunday worshipers has dwindled to about 30.

‘‘We’ve been trying to get the church to weigh in on what we’ve proposed,” Washington Grove Mayor John Compton said. ‘‘We’ve run into an impasse with the church.”

When residents expressed consternation about the church’s plan in the spring of 2003, town leaders answered by crafting the plan. It’s about quality of life in Washington Grove, they say, not limiting the role of the church.

‘‘This isn’t being written specifically to target the church in any way at all,” Anderson said.

‘‘We have a long history with the church,” he said.

Still, the issue has cut to the bone of what defines the town, which began in the late-1800s as a ‘‘camp meeting” where Washington, D.C., churchgoers could find likeminded people well away from the trappings of city-living.

This cemented its reputation as both a Methodist retreat and a refuge from urbanity—a balance that remains important to residents like Ann Briggs, who supports the plan.

‘‘I think it’s a reasonable approach to an issue that can have a great impact on the town,” said Briggs, who has attended public hearings on the matter, the most recent of which was Sept. 12. ‘‘The affect of cars in this town is just incredible. This is really a walking town.”

Malone said no representatives from the church attended the Sept. 12 public hearing,

Some expected that meeting to see a vote on the ordinance, but it instead yielded a decision to keep the record open while the language of the ordinance is adjusted to offer more guidelines for the board of zoning appeals to follow in approving or denying special exception applications.

‘‘It’s really just technical stuff,” Anderson said.