Bethel AME to buy land in Granite

June 17, 1998|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

Members of Bethel AME Church -- one of Baltimore's largest and most influential congregations - have endorsed a plan to buy land in the rural community of Granite for a long-sought suburban expansion, church officials said yesterday.

The decision to go ahead with a feasibility study on 256 acres of southwest Baltimore County farmland ` despite opposition from area residents - comes two weeks after a contract of sale was signed, William F. Chew, the property owner, said yesterday. He declined to give the purchase price.

It is the second time in a year that Bethel has sought a suburban site in Baltimore County, where half the 11,000-member West Baltimore congregation lives. Last November, the church abandoned controversial plans for a $10 million expansion in Owings Mills when it decided the complex ` including a sanctuary, family life center and broadcast facility ` would be too costly at that site.

The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, Bethel's pastor, who lives in Randallstown near Granite, said in a statement yesterday that the Granite land would fulfill "the vision of one church in two locations, serving city and county.

"We look forward to working with all community residents, community organizations, civic groups and Baltimore County government to make this acquisition a win-win for everyone."

Church officials said expansion plans call for a 3,000-seat sanctuary, chapels that seat up to 400, a media center and bookstore, cafeteria, banquet-hall, gymnasium, health club and library.

But residents of Granite, a historic village just southwest of Randallstown near the Howard County border, say they will oppose the expansion. They warn of traffic snarls, as well as water and sewage problems.

"The site has severe environmental limitations and perhaps could not provide an adequate, safe water supply," Bob Hocutt, president of the Granite-based Greater Patapsco Community Association, said after a board meeting Monday night. "Much of the soil is swampy and could not sustain adequate septic drainage."

Clint Coleman, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's spokesman, said yesterday the mayor was pleased that one Bethel location will remain in Baltimore and that the church will continue its outreach missions in the surrounding Marble Hill, Upton and Druid Heights neighborhoods, which are troubled by poverty, crime and drugs.

The 213-year-old church moved to the 1300 block of Druid Hill Avenue in 1910. The stately structure was designed in the Gothic style by Baltimore architects N.H. Hutton and John Murdoch.

The large Bethel African Methodist Episcopal congregation has been trying to expand for years after having outgrown a sanctuary that seats about 1,700.

Last year's plan to buy 37 acres in Owings Mills drew a cool reception from Baltimore County officials, who saw the property as a site for industrial development that could generate tax revenue.

The latest site is on land purchased by Chew's father in the 1950s and can legally hold a church, county zoning officials say. County officials said they would favor a Bethel expansion but cautioned that church officials must meet with the community and county planners and work out environmental and traffic issues.

"I don't want to make any judgments. They will have to go through the usual planning process and we will look at all the environmental and water concerns, all using objective criteria," said Michael Davis, spokesman for Baltimore County Exeutive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

Any development plans face a stringent county review process, including a community input meeting that could take place in the fall. Granite residents have opposed previous development plans at the site, which was rezoned last year from an agricultural district to a low-density residential area.

Hocutt said he was awaiting a meeting with Reid to review detailed plans. for Bethel's expansion.

"The fact that Dr. Reid is dividing the church between the city and the rural area is interesting," he said. "Of course, it is clear that the expected growth will occur in the county; we don't yet know the dimensions of the problems the church and this community will face."

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