Adventist church revives effort to build near Md. reservoir

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Local,Maryland,Real Estate,Alex Pappas
A Seventh-day Adventist church that won a $3.7 million religious discrimination lawsuit against Prince George's County is pressing the county again to approve regulations allowing it to build on 17 acres in Laurel.

The church, Reaching Hearts International, has been trying for years to convince county officials to approve a change in the water and sewer codes that would allow it to build a 900-seat sanctuary building and an attached 12,000-square-foot gymnasium. The church also wants to operate a K-8 grade school for 200 students on the rural property off Brooklyn Bridge Road.

In 2008, a federal jury ruled in favor of the church, which claimed religious discrimination after the Prince George's County Council denied requested water and sewer changes.

Michael Oxentenko, pastor of the church, said that without the site the church cannot fulfill its mission.

"We cannot baptize because there's no baptistery," he said of the temporary site church members have been using at Cedar Ridge Conference Center in nearby Burtonsville. "No family weddings, no funerals, no vesper services for the keeping of the Sabbath, no place for the choir, no place for office hours to counsel. No place for Bible studies, health lectures and for our youth to gather and learn our values."

Councilwoman Mary Lehman, who represents the area of the proposed site, declined to comment on the new proposal because of the litigation but said the threat of another lawsuit against the county won't affect her decision.

"I can't make legislative decisions based on fears of being sued," she said. "That's not why people elected me."

The council previously said the project was too big and could harm the environment and the water supply at the Rocky Gorge Reservoir on the Patuxent River. Part of the 17-acre property is adjacent to the reservoir.

"The Rocky Gorge is treasured and should be protected," resident Tamela Hines said. "It's not only a buffer zone but is home to a variety of wildlife, birds and rare native plants."

The church has used a federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, to say the county is prohibiting members from freely practicing their religion.

Laurel resident Rebecca Williams accused the church of using federal laws protecting religious groups "to try to get what they want, even if it means manipulating laws that have been put in place to protect our environment and our water supply."

apappas@washingtonexaminer.com

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