After fighting the construction of a Christian school for years and through most of a federal court jury trial, Anne Arundel County has agreed to allow Riverdale Baptist Church to build on its plot in Lothian and will pay the church $3.25 million for violating its constitutional rights.
As part of the unusual set of concessions, the county admitted it illegally targeted the church with restrictive legislation in 2005 and 2006 and accepted the presiding judge’s order to expedite the permitting process for Riverdale Baptist. U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz will retain jurisdiction over the case until permitting is completed.
The consent judgment, which has not yet been filed in paper form, was negotiated just before the county’s last witness was to take the stand Thursday afternoon and was endorsed by Judge Motz, according to the church’s attorney, H. Robert Showers.
Showers, of Simms Showers LLP, said the Riverdale Baptist case is perhaps only the third brought under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 to go to trial, and that the award is one of the largest for such a case nationwide. The church, which sued in 2006 along with the school and two parents of students, had asked for $6.7 million in lost tuition and increased construction costs.
“The church, they’re elated, because their real goal was to build a church school there and now they’re able to do that,” Showers said, adding that the construction plan is for a multipurpose building with classrooms, a gym and a cafeteria that could eventually house upwards of 400 students.
Showers said it was “not that surprising” when the county’s lawyers made their offer on the 12th day of trial, before the county’s former head of planning and zoning was to testify.
“I thought the trial was going very well,” he said.
County Attorney John Hodgson could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.
According to court papers, the Upper Marlboro-based church bought the 57-acre plot in southern Anne Arundel County in 2002 to accommodate the growth of its Arundel Bay Christian Academy, also in Lothian.
As the church sought permits to dig and build in 2004, it ran into opposition from both community leaders and politicians, including then-County Executive Janet S. Owens. One law, which took effect in 2005, required schools to be built on “arterial” roads, and another in 2006 deemed the roads adjoining the property “scenic and historic rural roads” and restricted building near them. The idea that the church was grandfathered in under the new law was eventually rejected.
The plaintiffs sued in October 2006, and by December 2007, the parties reached a settlement that would allow the school to be built. But the deal was contingent upon the approval of the county council, and in October 2008, the council unanimously rejected the necessary legislative change. (Shortly thereafter, the DLA Piper US LLP lawyers who had been representing the county withdrew from the case.)
Trial began Nov. 1, and Showers described it as “very eventful.” Community activist Charlotte Smutko testified that the school construction plan “would’ve been decimating a private area” and later said the plaintiffs “don’t seem to care about wrecking our environmentally-sensitive areas.”
Showers said the church will likely build in phases and that the land, near woods in the Patuxent River watershed, provides “plenty of room to grow.”
“We’d like to break ground next year,” he said.