Montgomery County will pay $1.25 million to a congregation that wanted to build an 800-seat church in the county’s agricultural preserve but was barred from doing so, and will instead build a 1,200-seat facility in Silver Spring.
The settlement resolves a dispute between the county and Bethel World Outreach Ministries, which bought a 119-acre property on Brink Road north of Germantown to build a church.
The church sued the county for violating its rights to freely exercise its religion, and in January 2013 a federal appeals court reversed part of a lower court’s decision and sent that matter back to federal district court for a trial on whether the county’s decision violates the church’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
The $1.25 million settlement will be used to resolve the lawsuit claims and purchase an agricultural easement for the Brinks Road property, which the church can still subdivide into residential properties, County Attorney Marc Hansen said.
The tract can be divided into up to four residential lots, according to the settlement.
The county made a policy decision that private institutional properties, such as churches and schools, shouldn’t be allowed in the Ag Reserve, Hansen said.
The county has “an interest in maintaining open and rural space and agricultural land in the area,” according to the settlement.
Instead of the Brink Road property, Bethel has indicated it wants to develop property at 1601 Norbeck Road in Silver Spring to construct a 1,200-seat church on property that previously belonged to Parker Memorial Baptist Church.
As part of the settlement, the County Council agreed to amend the county’s water and sewer plans to accommodate the 1,200-seat plan, subject to several conditions including Bethel possibly arranging a shuttle service between the new church and a commuter parking lot at Norbeck Road and Georgia Avenue to make up for a lack of adequate parking at the new site, according to the settlement.
Bethel has also expressed interest in purchasing property on Batchellors Forest Road in Olney to use as a private school that could also be used for church services and related activities, according to the settlement.
Neither an attorney representing Bethel nor church officials could be reached for comment Monday.
The county sees the settlement as a win for everyone involved, Hansen said.
The county was able to preserve its policy of encouraging agriculture in the Ag Reserve, while Bethel is able to build a church in Montgomery that meets its need, he said.