Bethel Church renews search for property Owings Mills site abandoned because of high costs

City will be considered

212-year-old congregation has 11,000 members

November 19, 1997|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of Baltimore's largest and most influential congregations, is renewing its search for land for an ambitious expansion after dropping plans to buy 37 acres in Baltimore County.

The church, which turned to a site in Owings Mills after a long and unsuccessful search for property in the city, abandoned the county location because of unexpectedly high development costs, the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, Bethel's pastor, said last night.

Now, Reid said, the church is willing to look at sites in the city and in Baltimore County.

"This is another opportunity for the city," Reid said, adding: "It's another opportunity for our congregation. It's another opportunity for the county."

When Bethel outlined plans for a suburban church and family center, city officials complained that they didn't get a chance to offer alternative sites. County officials were concerned that Bethel had chosen property earmarked for industrial development.

For the past two years, Bethel has been trying to find a site for a larger church, a school and a future broadcast station. The 212-year-old congregation's church in West Baltimore seats about 1,700, a tight fit for a membership of more than 11,000.

Reid, a stepbrother of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, also has complained about the lack of parking in the city.

Unsuccessful at finding an expansion site in the city, Bethel began looking toward Baltimore County, where nearly half its members live. Last spring, church officials signed a contract to buy property on Owings Mills Boulevard, less than three miles from Owings Mills Town Center.

The parcel is part of 56 acres that Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. acquired for $4.1 million in 1993, with plans to build an electric substation there by 1999. BGE has been working since December to sell part of the property for about $2 million, real estate and BGE sources have said.

Bethel planned to hold worship services at the West Baltimore church and the county site, Reid said. The initial expansion, with construction costs of $10 million to $20 million, would include a sanctuary with seating for at least 2,500 and a Family Life Center with a gymnasium, health club, classrooms and banquet rooms.

After the tentative deal became public, county officials met with Reid and said they would seek alternative sites for the church. Still, Bethel officials did not immediately back away from the Owings Mills site, and instead began engineering studies with an eye toward finalizing the purchase by year's end.

The congregation received a report last week showing that if the church did not spend nearly $1 million in additional development costs, the available area for building would prohibit any future additions, Reid said. The congregation then voted to exercise an escape clause to terminate the contract, he said.

Now, Reid said, church officials are "dusting off" real estate proposals received after news of the church's Owings Mills deal became public.

Michael H. Davis, a spokesman for Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, said yesterday that county officials have given Bethel a list of about a dozen sites that are for sale in the county.

Davis said that if the church has decided to expand outside the city, "We're going to welcome them with open arms. We think it's a great addition to the county and we hope they find a suitable location."

But Davis said now that the church has dropped plans to develop the Owings Mills site, county officials might propose changes that would eliminate churches as allowed uses for industrially zoned property.

Reid said he is open to any feasible location and wondered whether a suitable site might be created if Memorial Stadium in Baltimore is demolished in the near future.

But Reid complained that city officials have seemed more interested in helping find property for businesses than for his church.

"The city can find land for restaurants, for cafes, for nightclubs, for football teams," he said. "It is my prayer that whatever misunderstanding that may have existed in the past can be worked out. But if not, we're not waiting around."

Pub Date: 11/19/97

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