Bill would broaden testimony in building approval process

Debate over church plans in county stirs council members to seek change

May 23, 2001|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

When Baltimore County's zoning commissioner approved construction of a 3,000-seat church in Granite two weeks ago, he didn't consider how traffic from another large church two miles away might compound problems in the rural community. Commissioner Lawrence E. Schmidt said county law prevented him from considering such evidence.

But that might change. Five County Council members introduced a bill this week that would allow a hearing officer to "include testimony or evidence regarding the potential impact of other development plans" nearby when considering a proposed development. In effect, the legislation would prevent projects from being approved in a vacuum.

The bill was sparked by the debate over Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church's plan to build a $10 million sanctuary in Granite, where neighbors fear Sunday traffic jams will develop along two-lane Old Court Road.

Two miles east of the Bethel site, New Antioch Baptist Church of Randallstown is building a 2,450-seat church, also on Old Court Road.

County Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, said yesterday that the bill comes too late for the Bethel case but could be used in considering future development plans.

"I think that two megachurches within two miles of each other on narrow country roads definitely have an impact on the community," said Moxley. Bethel AME's new church will be built in his district.

Roz Roddy, a past president of the Greater Patapsco Community Association, which lobbied Schmidt to consider the impact of other developments in the Bethel area, said it's unfortunate the bill won't help her community.

"It's a little too late," she said. "The barn has burned."

She criticized the county for not having clear rules to ensure "the infrastructure in an area supports all this massive development."

Moxley said he believes county law gives a hearing officer latitude to consider neighboring development. The bill, he said, would clarify existing law.

"I'm glad they're clarifying that," Schmidt said yesterday. "I would have a little broader discretion in terms of evaluating a development plan in considering impact on a neighborhood."

The Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce was studying the bill yesterday.

Stuart D. Kaplow, a development attorney who is vice chairman of the chamber's legislative affairs committee, said the organization is not opposed in theory to the intent of the legislation.

But, he said, "There are many hundreds of approved plans in this county that never get built. Do you include a plan that was approved in 1955 and never built?"

G. Scott Barhight, a lawyer who represents developers, called the bill unfair. "It's too speculative. The hearing officer should focus on what is real, not what is imagined.

"Just because a project's going to get approved, doesn't mean it will be built," he said.

During the Bethel hearings, Schmidt heard testimony about traffic expected near the Bethel site. But he did not consider traffic that would be generated by the New Antioch church.

During one hearing, Bethel AME's lawyer, Robert Hoffman, tried to keep photographs of grading work at the Antioch site out of evidence, calling them "prejudicial to Bethel."

Hoffman declined to comment yesterday on the new bill.

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