Residents plan to give county officials clear traffic picture in `mega-church' flap

Opponents videotape buses at Bethel AME site to back traffic claims

July 05, 1999|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

A few of the five farmhouses along a dusty, unnamed lane off Old Court Road just east of Granite date back to 1899, and yesterday -- as American flags whipped proudly in the hot breeze -- neighbors prepared for front-porch lemonade socials.

While some visitors to the area in rural Baltimore County were welcomed with smiles and nods, 800 visitors from Baltimore's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church were greeted with cameras and video recorders.

Bethel AME members plan to build a "mega-church" -- with a 3,000-seat sanctuary and a parking lot for some 1,500 cars -- on 256 acres the church purchased at the end of the lane.

The Greater Patapsco Community Association, which challenges the church's plans, hopes that videotape of yesterday's bus caravan navigating the sharp, narrow curves of Old Court Road will persuade county officials to halt the development.

Residents fear that Bethel's 11,000 members will swamp the community's winding roads and drain water supplies. To assuage those concerns, Bethel's pastor, the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, has scaled back original plans for the new church.

On July 1, church officials submitted a development proposal to county officials. Although Bethel would like to break ground a year from now, the county has not scheduled a hearing on the plan.

Despite the protests, construction plans are moving forward. In March, environmental and engineering studies showed that the site was suitable for development, and water wells have already been dug.

"We are just seeing how they are going to affect our community," said Roz N. Roddy, of the 3000 block of Hernwood Road. "We are not anti-church or anti-black, we just feel a whole compound is not suitable for a rural area."

Roddy was joined by a half-dozen residents of Granite, who filmed and photographed church members as they arrived on 20 luxury coach buses to pray at the site of the planned church.

After getting off the buses, the congregation walked a mile through dense brush, towering trees and swarms of biting flies in a journey they described as a pilgrimage to holy land.

"God led us here. He wants us to be here, so we will be here despite all opposition," said S. J. Jones, 51, of Northeast Baltimore. "Besides, we already paid for it, so it's ours."

In June last year, Bethel purchased the wooded acres for $2.6 million from William F. Chew and initially proposed building a media center and bookstore, cafeteria, banquet-hall, gymnasium, school, health club and library in addition to the 3,000-seat sanctuary. Reid, the pastor, now says Bethel will concentrate on the sanctuary and parking lot.

Residents of Granite, a historic village southwest of Randallstown near the Howard County line, have not wavered in their opposition.

"My biggest concern is not being able to get out of my own property," said Shelly Deltuva of the 9300 block of Old Court Road. The farmhouse and sheep pen sit along what would become Bethel's access road.

Said Deltuva: "Today my driveway was already blocked, just wait until 1,500 cars try to leave."

Pub Date: 7/05/99

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