Church's move to county stalled Bethel AME's plans for site in Granite called inadequate

December 24, 1998|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

Six months after members of Bethel AME Church voted to add a suburban site that would include a sanctuary, school, family life center and broadcast station, plans for the rural complex have only inched forward.

Baltimore County officials say preliminary plans for Bethel's new complex in Granite, including a 90,000-square-foot church, fail to adequately address such issues as forest buffers, soil content, water quality and sewage capacity, said Kevin Koepenick, of the county Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management.

"They have not clearly shown that this site is an acceptable location for the planned development," said Koepenick, a geohydrologist. "Their preliminary concepts submitted to the county were incomplete."

But church leaders say their engineers soon will resubmit data required to obtain permits to develop the farmland, Koepenick said.

"Slow but sturdy," said Bethel's pastor, the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, who lives near Granite, a small community sandwiched between Randallstown and the Howard County border. "It's a learning experience. The process leads to patience, and I've gotten plenty of good sermons out of this already."

Reid said yesterday Bethel officials have a late January deadline for purchasing the property, owned by William F. Chew of Freeland. But engineering delays may prompt them to seek an extension of that contract, he added.

Koepenick said engineers hired by Bethel submitted data in mid-November that didn't "meet our criteria" for development of the farmland into a church.

If all criteria are met, the church may proceed with its development plan, which must be reviewed by county planning and zoning officials and a county hearing officer.

Among the necessary data is a detailed ground-water management study that includes water and sewage usage plans for the church complex, Koepenick said.

The complex includes offices, a media center, cafeteria, banquet hall, auditorium, gymnasium, credit union, library and classrooms.

A soil analysis and geographic study also are required.

The 11,000-member Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the city's most influential congregations, has been trying to expand for years, after straining to fit into its sanctuary in the 1300 block of Druid Hill Ave., which seats about 1,700.

Bethel moved in 1910 to the stately, 213-year-old structure in Druid Hill, designed in the Gothic style by Baltimore architects N.H. Hutton and John Murdoch. Church leaders have said they plan to maintain that church even as they expand into the suburbs.

In 1997, Bethel officials signed a contract to build a larger church and other facilities on 37 acres on Owings Mills Boulevard at an estimated cost of $10 million, Reid said.

But last November, Bethel dropped plans to buy the property less than three miles from Owings Mills Town Center as county officials expressed concern over Bethel's choice of the location, which the county saw as a site for potential industrial development that could generate tax revenue.

In June, the church identified another property, off winding, two-lane Old Court Road in Granite, a historic community of rolling hills and picturesque country houses that was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.

The 256-acre Granite site is zoned for low-density residential units and agricultural uses, permitting a church.

But Granite residents have protested the idea, saying a large church complex would forever change the rural character of their community and lead to traffic headaches.

A Patapsco-Granite community plan approved by the Baltimore County Council Monday night does not mention the Bethel plans, but cites a need to "balance reasonable rural growth opportunities with the preservation of the area's unique rural character and quality of life."

The plan will be added to the county's master plan. Residents could cite that plan in appealing any permit granted Bethel on its project, said Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat.

Politicians have said they favor a Bethel expansion to Granite but cautioned that church officials must meet with the community and county planners and work out environmental and traffic issues. Said Moxley: "I'm still watching to see what happens. I have concerns."

Pub Date: 12/24/98

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