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Anne Arundel County to pay $3.25M to Riverdale Baptist

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.

6 comments

  1. Very disappointed in the settlement. Why does the church go the route of religious discrimination when over the years in the papers it’s been about the county fighting for land preservation, especially being next to a wetland preserve. Who in the right mind builds anything next to farmland and nature preserves and cannot say that there won’t be any runoff onto land or traffic problems on narrow rural roads. A church with 57 friggin acres, that’s going to affect everything surrounding it! The county should have stood up to protect it’s land and residence from the get go!

  2. The citizens of AA County should be outraged that they will have to pay out this money, due to the criminal actions of the county. There is no question that someone-or two-should lose their jobs over this,and Owens should be banned from politics but as usual it will be swept under the rug.

    The more thoings change, the more they remain the same.

  3. not an aa resident

    Maybe the church went the route of religious discrimination because they were discriminated against because of their religion, and that is illegal. Hope the church does “affect everything surrounding it” with truth and a message of hope. dw

  4. AA County residents should be outraged all right…outraged that their county officials stooped low enough to repeatedly brake the law to discriminate against Riverdale Baptist; creating laws only to stop any process on their build, laws that affected them and only them. All that came out in federal court over the last 2 and a half weeks which is why the county finally settled. They knew they were backed in a corner with their lies and unlawfulness.

  5. Pretty shady things going on here, so thankful that we can finally build on the property we purchased back in 2004! seriously why did they do this! AA residents should be furious with their elected officials. The money will most likely go towards helping build the school and pay these lawyers. read through the complaint and you will see why the Church had to claim religious discrimination, because they were religiously discriminated against!

  6. The Religious Land Use act is abused by many religious organizations of all denominations seeking to build despite opposition of the local community, negating the local elected government authority over zoning matters.
    The denial of a building permit to a religious organization does not in itself equate religious discrimination. RLUIPA provides powerful financial incentives for local governments with a much more limited budget than their opponents, often funded by wealthy religious organizations and their sponsors.
    What is often overlooked is that discrimination requires specific and repeated patterns of behavior. Opposing a religious organization construction plans and zoning variance requests does not in itself suffice to demonstrate discrimination.
    This sorry situation of religious financial blackmail is unfortunately going on all around the country. If you want to know more, consult http://www.RLUIPA.info

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