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Praying for Zoning Reality in Olney

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Earlier today, about 50 people took a drive down Emory Church Road, a quiet little street in Olney, MD. The road is 24 feet wide at its widest, 14 feet wide through most of its length. Located in the last remaining really rural portion of Olney, Emory Church Road is lined with old trees, is home to about 30 homes and dead ends after a couple of miles from the main road, Georgia Avenue. Rutted and bumpy, Emory Church Road is the very definition, officially and functionally, of a rustic road.

So of course Montgomery County wants to allow a 50,000 square-foot structure with a parking lot big enough for 200 cars right in the middle of the picture.

The one complicating factor in all of this. That building, that's as big as Giant Food in Olney, is a church. And churches, or any institutions related to religion, get to do what they want to do -- force themselves on an unwilling population, despoil the land, whatever. Because they are churches.

Ten years ago, the same drama played out in Olney. A building that is for all intents and purposes a high school said it was coming to Olney from Wheaton and there was nothing the community could do about it because, well, it was a parochial high school affiliated with a religious order. That school is there today, in violation of every planning principle.

This time, three members of the five-member Planning Board, including one who is a member of the church under discussion, voted to approve the church's plans. The neighborhood be damned. The County Council likewise has overridden every logical objection and made, yet again, a mockery of the "Master Plan" process. It's more like a Master Suggestion, because it doesn't seem to mean much when powerful forces or skittish politicians are involved.

The church bought the land to facilitate its move from Wheaton knowing it wasn't zoned for a big building and that it wasn't supposed to get sewer service. What it did know, apparently, is that our elected officials wouldn't do anything to stop them.

The other night, Craig Rice, the newly elected County Council representative from the area, appeared at a town meeting in Olney. Of course the church came up and Rice's response was that there needs to be a balance between land use, the wishes of the community and the right to worship.

No one is disputing the right to worship. The U.S. Constitution guarantees that the government won't interfere with the right to worship, and the separation of church and state is (or should be) fairly strong. However, nowhere is the right to worship dependent on the right to build a 50,000 square facility with a 778-seat auditorium on a rural rustic road in defiance of all zoning and sewer regulations.

If the County treated this building as it does any other building, there would be no chance of this church being built. Similarly, if the County has treated the parochial high school as just another building, it likely would not have been built either. Churches and parochial schools, like it or not, are bricks and blocks and wires and pipes like any other building, and their affect on the surrounding area should be evaluated as with any other building.

But they aren't, and reason doesn't prevail,and the County Council and the Planning Board toss the issue back and forth, playing catch with the proverbial hot potato. Which is why I and about 50 of my neighbors did our little drive around the neighborhood this morning -- to show what a mere 50 cars would do to traffic, much less hundreds more. Take a look at those pictures again. Doesn't look like the road could handle much traffic, does it? The County doesn't care. The Planning Board doesn't care. They are scared of losing a court fight. What makes this worse is that MoCo won in court the last time they wanted to keep a mega-building out from where it didn't belong -- in the Ag Reserve.

Here's the money quote from one of the planning staff: "If a government body goes against a church without a very solid reason, they will get sued and will likely lose."

This is, of course, a simplification of some very complex issues. But they boil down to something very simple and understandable: small roads, no sewer and overwhelming community opposition. In MoCo, those apparently aren't solid reasons.

Note: This post has nothing to do with my day job at Public Knowledge. I live in Olney.