'Megachurch' in Granite? Bethel AME: Local zoning laws need updating to reflect impact of massive church operations.

June 29, 1998

BETHEL AME Church's proposal to move the bulk of its operations from West Baltimore to a planned complex in Baltimore County's rural Granite is the latest example of a land-use problem many jurisdictions have yet to confront.

Under most zoning statutes, churches are allowed as a matter of right in residential and rural areas. But recently a new kind of church has evolved -- the "megachurch" -- which does not in any way resemble the place of worship lawmakers had in mind when they wrote the laws.

Megachurches have sanctuaries for thousands (Bethel AME's would seat 3,000), consume large parcels (Bethel AME would take up 256 acres) and are full-time operations with banquet halls, auditoriums, health clubs, counseling centers and day care centers.

The impact of such structures on communities and the environment can be as great as that of a shopping center. Yet, because such megachurches are legally classified the same as tiny country ones, the public has little opportunity for input or administrative review. Under Baltimore County's development review procedures, residents could have some say on the details of Bethel AME's development plans. They cannot, however, stop the project, though traffic would burden a narrow portion of Old Court Road. The lack of public water and sewer also means the church would need well and septic systems that could adversely affect neighbors.

Local governments need to establish different rules for megachurches. They might look to Anne Arundel County. Faced with a similar controversy a few years ago, it passed legislation requiring permission from the county's administrative hearing officer for churches in rural areas requiring more than 2 acres of blacktop.

Such a review allows questions about an institution's impact to be fully explored. It gives residents the opportunity to stop inappropriate proposals. And it helps ensure that, if a megachurch is approved, it will be compatible with its surroundings.

Pub Date: 6/29/98

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