Church plan meets neighbors' opposition

Granite residents fear effect of 3,000-seat facility

August 26, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

After four years of searching in Baltimore County for a place to build a new church, the congregation of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church thought it had found its promised land -- a 256-acre tract at Dogwood and Old Court roads in Granite.

But after meeting with community members last night to present their plans, it was clear the West Baltimore church would need more than trumpets to knock down the walls of opposition.

More than 200 people came to the meeting at Woodlawn High School to hear Bethel's proposal, but it was apparent that many had made up their minds to oppose the 3,000-seat church they fear would overwhelm their rural Patapsco Valley neighborhood.

Opponents said they did not oppose members of the Bethel congregation but the size of the proposed church. "We are objecting to the vast enterprise called Bethel AME Church," said Abe Granek of Hernwood Road near the planned development.

Bethel, one of the city's most influential congregations, wants to expand because its membership has outgrown its 213-year-old building at 1300 Druid Hill Ave., which seats about 1,700.

Church leaders say they intend to continue operating in the city, but want a building that will accommodate the church's growing number of suburban members.

Leaders first focused on a parcel in Owings Mills but abandoned that site because it would have been too costly to develop.

In March, the church purchased the tract in Granite for $2.6 million from William F. Chew.

Bethel is asking permission to build a 90,000-square-foot building with a sanctuary, classrooms, offices and meeting space, and parking for 1,373 vehicles. Eventually, officials hope to add a media center and broadcast station.

The site in Granite, a community of rolling hills and picturesque houses between Randallstown and the Howard County border, is zoned for low-density residential development and agricultural use, which would permit a church.

But opponents say the "megachurch" is far larger than other area churches and worry that Bethel's approximately 14,000 members will swamp the community's winding roads and drain local wells.

"If you are going to add buses and hundreds of cars, it's going to be a mess," said Chris DeVier of Windsor Mill Road.

But Robert Hoffman, the lawyer for Bethel, told the crowd that the church believes the roads are adequate to handle the increase in traffic. He promised that his client would study the project's impact on local wells.

Several residents who spoke against the planned church are worried that they will have to share driveways with Bethel.

The problem facing Owen and Janice Weaver is more serious. Bethel contends that it has the right to build a road through property on which their 75-year-old cottage was built, indeed, through the house itself. Hoffman argues that the Weaver building stands on an undeveloped access road. The couple disagrees.

A number of disputes have arisen in other areas of the county over construction of large religious institutions. Most recently, residents in Worthington Valley fought Har Sinai congregation's plans to build a 62,500-square-foot synagogue. A county hearing officer approved the project, but the ruling is being appealed.

In 1996, the Baltimore County Council considered a bill to limit the size of religious buildings in rural areas, but the bill was withdrawn after religious leaders complained vehemently.

Bethel AME has up to a year to submit its final development plan for further review by county agencies and a hearing officer.

Pub Date: 8/26/99

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