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Zoning Code changed for places of worship

Danielle Ryan

(9/26) On September 5, the Emmitsburg Board of Commissioners voted to amend several sections of the zoning code, all in relation to places of worship. These amendments were discussed in response to a request made earlier in the summer by local churches who wanted to build sanctuaries in the B-2 General Commercial District. However, the zoning ordinance did not permit places of worship in this district, so the Board was asked to consider adding "Church" as an allowed use in the B-2 district.

The town replaced the word "Church" and replaced it with "Place of Worship" and provided its definition as: a structure or place in which worship, ceremonies, rituals, and education pertaining to a particular system of beliefs are held. This definition and change of language from "Church" to "Place of Worship" is intended to be more inclusive and broader.

Moreover, the amendment allows places of worship to be built in the B-2 zone in addition to other places of public assembly, including auditoriums, meeting halls and theaters. The zoning code previously contradicted the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 that protected the treatment of individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning laws. The code’s omission of places of worship, while allowing other public places such as auditoriums or theaters has been considered discrimination under that law. The amendment would correct that contradiction. Commissioners voted unanimously to make the change to allow places of worship in the B-2 Commercial district.

However, more questions arose when discussing the elimination of places of worship from residential areas. The Planning Commission discussed, in length, the recommendation to remove places of worship from residential districts, but decided it was in the best interest of the town’s neighborhoods to omit them. Commissioner Cliff Sweeney mentioned that by allowing places of worship in residential areas, you would also have to allow other large gathering places, and that kind of disruption my not be in the best interest of neighborhood communities.

Commissioners Elizabeth Buckman and Joe Ritz were both weary of the idea of limiting areas where places of worship could be placed. Pastor John Talcott, of Christ’s Community Church, also disagreed with the exclusion of churches from any area in town, especially a residential area. Town Planner Sue Cipperly mentioned that prayer meetings or small groups of people gathering for a religious purpose in a home are allowed as long as there is no neighborhood disruption. The intention is to prohibit any high-density traffic entering a neighborhood.

The ordinance was passed on a 3-2 vote, Buckman and Ritz against. Places of Worship are now allowed in the B-2 district, but not any of the residential areas.

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