City to modify parking codes for houses of worship
Aug. 13, 2003
Michael Duck
Special to the Gazette

New proposal 'reflects Rockville at its best,' religious leader says

Everybody wins.

That's what some city officials and religious leaders are saying about the latest version of a proposal to modify the city's parking codes for houses of worship and other institutions.

"The point where we are now with the [proposal] reflects Rockville at its best," the Rev. Mansfield Kaseman said. "Everybody came together with open minds."

Kaseman is pastor of Rockville United Church and the executive director of Community Ministries of Rockville, a service alliance of 20 Rockville congregations. He has been very vocal about the city's efforts to modify the codes.

The new proposal would require new or expanded institutional parking lots to be surrounded by a 10-foot buffer and would eliminate a loophole allowing religious institutions to have off-site parking in neighborhoods.

The council and the religious institutions appeared to be at loggerheads in March 2002, when Kaseman and a group of at least a dozen representatives from places of worship flooded a City Council meeting to voice their concerns. But following a year of collaboration, discussion and revision, both sides appear close to a resolution.

"It was obviously something that was of deep concern to a lot of people, and that meant we had to do a good job with it," Councilman John F. Hall Jr. said.

Religious institutions believed the original proposal would have limited their ability to provide services and even forced some congregations to close. Some believed the measure would have punished houses of worship even when they were "good neighbors" in their communities.

Following the March 2002 meeting, Hall and other city officials met with many of the institutions that would have been affected by changes to hear their concerns.

"We met with everybody that wanted to meet with us," Hall said.

In June, Hall submitted a plan to revise the proposal based on that input.

"I think that in every single case we were able to come to an understanding," Hall said.

The council officially reviewed Hall's plan at its Aug. 4 meeting. Arthur D. Chambers, director of the city's planning department, said city staff members will have a revised draft of the proposal within a week.

Roald Schrack, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rockville, believes the new version of the proposal is not an ideal solution, but "it's probably the only one that could be achieved in this situation."

Hall's recommendation would relax some of the original proposal's requirements. First, it would not affect any existing institutional parking areas unless they are enlarged. If institutions simply maintain or even shrink their parking lots, they will be immune.

In addition, Hall proposed reducing the buffering requirement from 20 feet to 10. Institutions would also have several options for creating a required "screen" between any new lots and adjacent properties.

Hall's revisions would also make it easier for institutions to obtain a waiver if they do expand their parking lots. The city Planning Commission could waive the new requirements if there are unique site conditions or safety concerns, or if the lot is less than 7,500 square feet.

The commission could also grant a waiver if most of the surrounding residential community supports the expansion. Hall's plan would require a petition supporting the expansion signed by 70 percent of the residents within a tenth of a mile of the institution, but those numbers may be revised.

"What Councilman Hall is proposing now shows that he and his colleagues have heard us and appreciate our concerns," Kaseman said.

Although Kaseman acknowledged some details still need to be ironed out, he predicted there won't be any more major conflicts with the council.

Kaseman said the proposal designed with institutions' input in mind will do a better job meeting the council's initial objectives.

"I think we've ended up at a place where it's a win-win for everybody," Mayor Larry Giammo said.

Giammo said he believes the new proposal represents a good balance between institutions' and residents' needs.

A previous City Council created the first draft of the proposal in September 2001 in response to Lincoln Park residents' concerns about the expansion of Mount Calvary Baptist Church. The institution was planning to raze neighborhood houses it owned to create off-site parking lots.

Former city planner Lisa Rother told The Gazette in 2001 that the city had created the off-site parking exception 15 years earlier for Clinton A.M.E. Church, also in Lincoln Park.

Following the introduction of the original proposal and discussions with Lincoln Park residents, Mount Calvary eliminated its plans for off-site parking and scaled back its expansion. The Planning Commission approved the modified plans in July.

Although the proposal has been contentious, Hall and Kaseman praised all parties involved for working toward compromise.

"To the credit of the mayor and council and city staff, I think they realized ... they needed to give the religious community a better listening," Kaseman said.

He commended Hall and the city staff for maintaining trust and building community.

Hall, for his part, credited "the institutions who stuck with us" for their patience and work with the city.

City planner Deane Mellander is revising the proposal based on Hall's recommendations. He said he expects the council to adopt the proposal's final draft in September.