Large church frightens small town Bethel AME eyes rural Granite for major expansion

June 13, 1998|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Jay Apperson contributed to this article.

After withdrawing one controversial expansion proposal in Baltimore County, Bethel AME Church -- among the city's largest and most influential congregations -- is to vote on a new suburban site for a church, school, family life center and broadcast station.

But residents of Granite, a small community sandwiched between Randallstown and the Howard County border, say such a mega-church would forever change their rural community -- and lead to traffic headaches in the area.

"It would be a terrible problem for the whole community," said Baltimore County Council Chairman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, who noted that there is another large church in the area. "I've been there on Sundays and on evenings when there are services going on, and I can't get up the road."

The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, Bethel's pastor, would not confirm the Granite site yesterday, but said his membership -- nearly half of whom live in the county -- would vote Monday night on a proposal to purchase land for the church's expansion.

The site, county officials say, is near the center of the tiny town of Granite, on the rim of the Patapsco Valley State Park, off winding, two-lane Old Court Road.

Granite, an area of rolling hills and picturesque country houses, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. Three granite quarries once made it one of the county's wealthiest areas, and its natural treasure supplied granite for the hallways of the Library of Congress, the old Post Office in Washington, D.C., and many Baltimore municipal buildings.

The parcel considered by Bethel is zoned for low-density residential units and agricultural uses. A church is permitted, said Carl W. Richards Jr., a county zoning supervisor.

The 11,000-member Bethel African Methodist Episcopal congregation has been trying to expand for years, after straining to fit into a sanctuary that seats about 1,700.

About ayear ago, Bethel officials signed a contract to build a larger church and other facilities on a site in Owings Mills. The project was estimated to cost about $10 million, said Reid.

In November, Bethel officials dropped plans to buy the 37 acres on Owings Mills Boulevard, less than three miles from Owings Mills Town Center.

County officials, however, were concerned about Bethel's choice of that location, which the county saw as a site for industrial development that could generate tax revenue.

The church abandoned its Owings Mills plans because of unexpectedly high development costs, and Reid said he would again consider sites within the city.

The pastor complained that city officials had previously seemed more interested in helping find property for businesses than for Bethel's expansion.

But Baltimore officials, hoping to keep the large congregation in the city, pledged to help locate a new site.

Reid said church leadership got a "somewhat better reception from the city" after plans for the Owings Mills site fell through.

He said that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (who is his stepbrother) led church officials on a tour of prospective properties -- most of them in East Baltimore. But none of the sites seemed able to accommodate the church's expansion plans as well as the site now being considered, he said.

Schmoke was out of the country and unavailable for comment yesterday.

Michael H. Davis, a spokesman for Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, said county officials would not comment until after Monday's vote.

"They are a great institution -- during our volunteer day, 100 members of their church volunteered at a nursing home," Davis said. "They'll bring a lot to the community they are in."

But Davis' optimism was not shared by some members of the Granite community.

"In the past, as far as this property is concerned, we have objected to development because of the environmental fragility of the property and because of access from Old Court Road," said Bob Hocott, president of the Greater Patapsco Community Association.

Hocott said the property's owner, a family partnership, tried unsuccessfully last year to get the zoning changed at the 250-acre site to allow for higher density.

That attempt sparked Granite's community leaders to work with county planners on a master plan that recognizes environmental concerns in the area and seeks ways to preserve its rural and historical character.

Told that some Granite residents had already raised concerns about traffic, Reid pledged yesterday to meet with them.

"As a homeowner myself, I understand how a community group and individual residents obviously have to have very real concerns when any institution is talking about moving into an area," he said.

The pastor added that churches -- and the programs they offer -- are needed in growing areas, just as new schools are.

"If we can just sit down and talk with each other, I'm sure we can make this a win-win situation for everybody," Reid said.

Pub Date: 6/13/98

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