Hearings for church upset community

Development in area should be considered, residents say

April 09, 2001|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

At recent hearings on Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church's plans to build a 3,000-seat sanctuary in rural Granite, much of the testimony has focused on whether the project would snarl traffic on Old Court Road. Largely absent from the testimony, however, was any mention of planned developments nearby -- a second church the size of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 150 homes and a hospital expansion.

The county zoning commissioner, Lawrence E. Schmidt, says county law does not require him to hear such evidence, and has suggested a court might overrule him if he did. But neighbors opposing Bethel's plans say it is irresponsible not to take a broad look at development in the area to determine the impact of the Bethel AME project on Old Court Road, a winding two-lane thoroughfare.

"How do you control a potential traffic problem if you don't look at the whole picture?" asked Roz Roddy of Granite, a past president of the Greater Patapsco Community Association. "They say it's irrelevant. But it's not irrelevant to the people who live here."

Bethel AME has hired a traffic engineer who concluded the new church would create "no significant inconvenience" on Old Court Road during Sunday services.

That study does not take into account these projects:

New Antioch Baptist Church of Randallstown is building a 2,450-seat structure with 615 parking spaces on Old Court Road near Windsor Mill Road, an intersection most Bethel parishioners likely will drive through to get to the church. The New Antioch site is about two miles east of the Bethel site.

Northwest Hospital Center plans to expand its emergency room and add an inpatient psychiatric center. The hospital is on Old Court Road, off Liberty Road, at an intersection that also will be used by parishioners going to both churches.

150 homes are planned at developments on or near Old Court Road in the vicinity of the Bethel site, according to county planning records.

Arnold Jablon, the county's director of permits and development management, acknowledges traffic could be a problem.

"On Sunday mornings, I can't imagine," he said. "Windsor Mill and Old Court Road is going to be a hassle."

During a series of hearings on the Bethel project last month, Schmidt -- who can scale down the size of the church but not reject it -- limited testimony by concerned residents about development in the area. But he did allow Granite resident Mark A. Smith to submit photographs of construction along Old Court Road, including the New Antioch site, where grading is under way.

"This is not some future ethereal construction," Smith told Schmidt. "It should have at least some minimal bearing on this case." Schmidt declined to comment for this article.

Bethel's lawyer, Rob Hoffman, repeatedly objected to Smith's testimony and tried to keep the photographs out of evidence, calling them "prejudicial to Bethel."

The traffic study presented by Bethel AME, a congregation that worships in Baltimore, takes into account current conditions, plus the additional volume expected to be generated by parishioners attending Sunday services.

The logic of Bethel's traffic study is lost on Granite community leaders who predict gridlock. Paul Dorsey, president of the Greater Patapsco Community Association, said he finds it absurd to keep out testimony on other development in the area.

"It's like being in a logic-free zone," he said. But Jablon said the rights of property owners usually supersede the interests of the community in courts of law.

"Supreme Court cases have drawn narrow boundaries for which local [governments] can't deny the use of property," he said. "How do you tell a landowner, you can't do something because another landowner beat you to the punch?"

Although no traffic study projecting the number of cars from the two churches has been conducted, Bethel offered testimony at a hearing in the fall that it had changed the time of its Sunday services so they would not coincide with New Antioch's.

New Antioch is building along a stretch of Old Court Road that passes through farms and woodlands just west of the congested commercial Liberty Road corridor in Randallstown.

The project was exempt from public hearings and the community input process because the site is zoned for a church and is "an existing lot of record" that does not need to be subdivided, Jablon said.

By contrast, Bethel did not seek an exemption and has had to prepare a traffic study, recently updated at Schmidt's request, showing how the church would affect traffic flow on Old Court Road.

Neither the county nor the state, which owns the road, requires independent traffic studies.

Design plans filed with the county by New Antioch show that Old Court Road will be widened in front of the church. Thomas Hamer, the county's deputy director of public works, said the state has no plans to widen the road anywhere else west of Liberty Road.

Hamer said the county is looking at ways to connect nearby Brenbrook Lane to Old Court Road and to redesign the intersection of Old Court and Greens Lane, near New Antioch, to ease traffic congestion. He said there is no timetable or cost estimate for the work.

But community leaders say those plans do not go far enough.

Bob Hocutt, a community activist who lives within a mile of each church site, is worried about the future of the scenic road, which is the main route through Granite.

"The county is blinding itself purposely to the traffic problems that it's creating," he said. "It really puts the community at a great disadvantage when everyone can see the gridlock that will no doubt take place."

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