Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Bridging the gap between the ozone layer and Heaven

Bethesda congregations go green

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Nine-year-old Taylor Leach of Germantown reads Ruth 1:16, with her father Jeff, brother Austin, and mother Mary, during a Sunday service at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethesda. The church plans to renovate its buildings and add underground parking as part of its long-term mission to go green.
And God said, ‘‘Let there be light.” And there was light. And He saw the light, that it was good, and that it came from an energy-efficient, environmentally friendly fluorescent light bulb.

So goes the premise guiding downcounty congregations to turn their houses of worship into green buildings. Synagogues, churches and non-denominational spiritual ministries have shelled out millions of dollars in the last decade to reduce their carbon footprints.

Amidst the flock of eco-missionaries is the Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethesda, whose grand plans — which include major architectural work that is being considered by the county Planning Board — would significantly change the scenery of Old Georgetown Road.

Behind the church’s terrestrial plan is a celestial philosophy for environmental activism.

‘‘It’s not just hugging trees,” said the Rev. Marvin Tollefson. ‘‘The underlying belief is that God has handed over to people the responsibility for care of the Creation.... We believe this whole environmental issue is to express love for God, but also for other people.”

The church began planning its reconstruction before the turn of the millennium. Members decided the church needed to be reincarnated as something healthier. Where the children go to Sunday school, there is asbestos and lead paint. The asphalt parking lot takes up precious space. And the church’s clientele has expanded; support groups, 12-step programs and two full-time family therapists use the church’s three-story auxiliary building.

After years of planning in conjunction with architect Michael Foster and Bozzuto Homes, the idea for redevelopment was to rebuild the church’s current auxiliary office building, adding a floor to the current three-story structure. And plans call for a 107-unit condominium complex with a vegetated roof, 17 ‘‘moderately priced” units and three levels of underground parking to be built north of the church. The four homes currently on the church’s 1.9-acre property will be torn down to make room for the new structures.

Bozzuto spokeswoman Valerie Covarrubias said the company struck a deal to cover an undecided portion of the project’s cost.

The church is budgeting for renovation of the existing chapel, the auxiliary office building with a community center and the condominiums. Barry Lemley, church spokesman, declined to say the total size of the project’s budget. He estimated it will take 20 years for the church to pay off its construction debt.

Last November, the church filed a special request for county permission to build condos in its single-family home residential zone.

At first, the Planning Board had the church’s plans on the schedule for a hearing on June 14, but the hearing has been delayed.

‘‘Our reviewers had some concerns about it,” said Nancy C. Lineman, Planning Board spokesperson. Lineman said plans were ‘‘currently being tinkered with” by the church and planners, specifically relating to the size of the complex.

The church expects the Planning Board to render its latest decision in mid-July, and, if it approves the preliminary plans, a public hearing will be held in September. Builders would break soil in November 2008. The church’s 400-member congregation will be displaced to a still unknown location for up to two years.

The church’s neighbors in Battery Park haven’t come to a consensus about whether they support the plan.

‘‘Many of our residents are concerned” about construction, said Malcolm Rivkin, chairman of the neighborhood’s land use committee and a former Planning Board commissioner. ‘‘The church has been very good on explaining their concept. I’m not saying that they have addressed all the concerns. ...But they have been very forthcoming in discussing their plan.”

‘‘It’s better than another office building, which is what would happen if we moved,” Tollefson said.

Behind the green concept is a budget conundrum that would be eased by Bozzuto’s plans to cover costs. Eco-friendliness generally comes with a higher initial price tag, which makes it tough for some congregations to go green.

Another local house of worship, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation of Potomac, faced a similar quandary in the mid-1990s. The synagogue was originally housed in the church’s buildings but voted in 1993 to start renovating itself. In 2001, Adat Shalom moved into its current home — a federally recognized Energy Star synagogue built with recycled materials. The synagogue’s continuously lit sanctuary lamp, or ner tamid, is solar powered. The green building cost no mere pittance, though; it cost about $3 million.

‘‘You could say, ‘If vinyl is $10,000 cheaper, shouldn’t we use that money for religious education or to pay the clergy?’” said Fred Scherlinder Dobb, rabbi for Adat Shalom. ‘‘But if these are truly holy buildings, isn’t it hypocritical to outsource the suffering? To say we’ll save a little bit here and allow the pain to accrue elsewhere, with the workers, with the endangered species, with the people who live in degraded ecosystems?”

The link between environmental beatitudes and spiritual integrity has motivated other congregations in the area. Among them are Bethesda’s Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church.

‘‘Every Unitarian Universalist will tell you they’re about the environment, but we’re trying to get them to walk the walk,” said member Molly Perkins Hauck, who serves on the church’s environmental task force.

Cedar Lane’s worldly structure uses double-paned thermal windows, non-toxic cleaning supplies, fluorescent bulbs and light switches that automatically turn off.

It remains to be seen whether Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church’s development plans will win county approval, but in the meantime the church’s clergy appears to be heeding its own word.

Mismatched light bulbs fill half of the sockets in the church’s ceiling lights. They are sampling different brands of high-efficiency bulbs, Tollefson said.

The church also hosts a monthly public forum where speakers from the county give demonstrations and tips on how to practice energy conservation at home.

And throughout the church’s office building, the lights are turned off. Instead, natural light streams through the windows. A gentle reminder is taped to every light switch — a symbol of what church leaders said they’re trying to accomplish: ‘‘If this light is not needed...Please serve God and save the planet.”