Church, Farm Groups at Odds Over Ag Reserve

Church, Farm Groups at Odds Over Ag Reserve

At contentious hearing, County Council takes up two measures that would curb private institutions' expansion in the Reserve.

The Nov. 8 County Council hearing on regulations that would make it difficult for large churches to locate in the Agricultural Reserve developed quickly into a cheering contest.

The Council’s large hearing room was filled past capacity, with observers standing along the back and sides, spilling out the rear doors with the overflow crowd watching on closed-circuit TV in the cafeteria. Onlookers were divided—more or less evenly—between farmers and environmental groups supporting two proposed measures and church communities opposing them.

Planning Board Chairman Derek Berlage opened the testimony saying that the opposing groups’ interests can be balanced. It was a theme that resurfaced several times during the more than three hour hearing—that faith vs. environment is a false dichotomy.

“While there are tendencies to frame debates in that wonderfully binary world in which we try to live, that wonderfully binary world … is really a misstatement of reality,” Council President Tom Perez said late in the evening.

But the intervening hours were filled with often-rancorous debate.

ZONING TEXT Amendment 05-15, introduced last month, would maintain and sometimes reduce existing limits on the percentage of lots that can be covered by buildings in many county zones and introduce new limits on the percentage of lots that can be covered by impervious surfaces — buildings as well as parking lots and other paved or hard-surface areas — in the county’s rural zones.

Agricultural uses, for which the Reserve was designed, would be exempt from the impervious surface limits.

Another measure proposes that the county revise its Water Supply and Sewerage Systems Plan to prevent churches and other institutions from water and sewer hookups in the Rural Density Transfer zone that makes up most of the Agricultural Reserve.

The legislation is based on the recommendations of an inter-agency working group established in January to make recommendations on rules for private institutions’ expansion in rural zones. Until now, the Council has considered its requests on a case-by-case basis.

According to the work group report released June 27, “Although the Council has ultimately approved the great majority of [private institutional] requests, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) staff who administer the Water and Sewer Plan believe the [private institution] policy has served a valuable role as a gatekeeper, keeping some unsuitable requests from being filed and coming to the Council.”

The Planning Board last month concurred with the work group recommendations: to prohibit the sewer hookups except to rectify public health issues, and to limit impervious surface to 20 percent in the Rural and Rural Cluster Zones and 15 percent in the Rural Density Transfer Zone, which makes up one-third of the county.

The County Council’s Transportation and Environment Committee voted 3-0 Nov. 10 to advance the ban on water and sewer hookups and 2-1 to advance the limits on impervious surfaces to the full Council.

Councilmember George Leventhal (D-At Large) was the dissenting vote and could be a swing vote in full council deliberations.

TECHNICALLY, BOTH current proposals would apply not specifically to churches but to a category of tax-exempt private institutional facilities—know as PIFs—that include schools, senior centers and other organizations. Still, it is churches, especially large churches seeking room to grow in the county’s tight and expensive real estate market that are predominantly affected, a fact that raised concerns among the faith leaders at Tuesday's hearing.

“The proposed legislation is targeted at churches in particular, including our synagogues and other religious congregations,” said Rev. Dr. Guy Williams Sr., speaking on behalf of an interfaith group representing more than 300 congregations. “We have a lot of conversations about PIFs. We are not PIFs. … We are congregations of faith.”

Williams added, “Much of the hoopla and some of the antagonistic legislation in our view is really targeted at religious freedom.”

Leaders supporting the development-curbing legislation protested that claim.

“This is not about being opposed to churches,” said Nancy Soreng of the League of Women Voters. “This is about being opposed to development in the agricultural reserve, so we can keep the commitment to preserving that land for agriculture and open space.”

Dolores Milmoe, a former Potomac resident speaking on behalf of the Audubon Naturalist Society, was one of several speakers to point out that many members of the farming and environmental communities are themselves people of faith.

“We praise the lord every weekend in the Ag Reserve in over 60 faith communities that serve the rural community,” she said. “This is not an anti-religious effort on the part of those groups who want to see good stewardship of God’s creation.”

Faith leaders stressed that environmental stewardship is part of their missions, too, and that their communities would build responsibly in the reserve. At least one pastor offered to place a conservation easement over part of his community’s land and another said that the congregation was committed to preserving most of its Ag Reserve property as productive farmland.

THE ISSUE IS particularly troubling for churches that had already purchased property in the reserve before the legislation was introduced. The proposed development rules include provisions that would grandfather in existing properties that do not meet the requirement, though expansions would be subject to the new rules. But groups with pending development plans have been left in limbo.

“I am here today as the leader of a church that does not have a place to call home because for 16 months this county successfully stalled and delayed and deferred on our application for water and sewer extension and our site plan approval until the settlement date came and went,” said Mark Tindle of the Seneca Creek Community Church. “Our repeated requests for a timely decision were ignored and as a result we have lost the contract on our land, we have lost over $300,000 in legal, engineering, architectural and consulting fees on a project that should have gone through. There is no good excuse for that loss.”

Many church leaders reported that their congregations now hold two, three, or in one case, seven services on Sunday to accommodate all of their worshippers and that their situations are getting worse.

But groups supporting the legislation say that while they are sympathetic to the churches’ desire to grow, allowing PIFs in the Ag Reserve will undermine planning policies that have stood in good stead for 25 years and violate the trust of farmers who gave up the right to develop their land specifically so that the Reserve could be protected as agricultural open space.

“My family has been farming in Montgomery County since the 1930s and we’re committed to remaining a part of the agriculture community. [We] demonstrated this commitment by selling [transferable development rights]. We encumbered our farm because we understood that TDR easements would protect our land from development and ensure a future for the agriculture industry,” said Pam Saul of the Montgomery Soil Conservation District. “How can the county even consider PIFs when these development rights were specifically transferred to preserve this land for agriculture? It doesn’t make sense.”

Studies show that that damage to streams and other environments varies in direct proportion to the amount of impervious surface nearby and many of the churches anticipate building sanctuaries for 1,000 or more as well as schools, hard-surfaced play areas, and parking lots to accommodate hundreds of cars. (Under planning rules, a 1,000-person sanctuary would require 250 parking spaces, though planners say that in practice the church would need somewhat more.)

Environmentalists have advocated for an 8 percent cap on impervious surface.

Farming groups are particularly troubled by the possibility that churches could try to circumvent impervious surface limits by buying more land than they need— decreasing the percentage of the property covered by hard surfaces but taking land out of agricultural use.

According to agricultural assessment records, land dedicated to agricultural use has declined by 36 percent since the creation of the Ag Reserve, from 128,000 acres in 1980 to 82,350 acres in 2004.

Supporters of the legislation believe that it closes a loophole that undermines the vision of upcounty master plans. There is a problem of cause and effect—PIFs have been able to afford land in the Ag Reserve specifically because it is not zoned for development. Letting them build could send the protected farmland down a slippery slope of development.

“Every approved project nibbles away and breaks up the continuity of the reserve,” said the Olney Coalition’s Barbara Falcigno. “[It’s] the death by 1,000 cuts.”