Opponents ask reversal of zoning decision allowing large church in Granite

Zoning officer erred in visit to site owned by Bethel, they say

November 14, 2001|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Opponents of a planned 3,000-seat church in rural Granite asked yesterday that approval for the project be overturned, saying that the Baltimore County zoning commissioner who conducted hearings erred by visiting the property after testimony had been taken.

Kathleen S. Skullney, a representative of the Greater Patapsco Community Association, told the county Board of Appeals that Zoning Commissioner Lawrence E. Schmidt inappropriately conducted a fact-finding mission in the neighborhood near the proposed Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church site on Old Court Road.

Skullney argued that Schmidt's visit to inspect traffic patterns occurred after zoning hearings on the church were completed. Schmidt, who approved the project in May, included findings and observances from the visit in his written decision, she said.

"There was no basis for the hearing officer to visit the site and find facts," said Skullney, who is an attorney. "It raises a serious question of how reliable these facts are."

Contacted at his office yesterday, Schmidt defended the site visit and said that he told both parties of his intentions.

"It is not unusual for me to go out and look at the property or neighborhood in a contested case," Schmidt said. "I gave people an opportunity to object to my going out there before I went out there."

An attorney for Bethel AME also defended Schmidt's actions, saying that he viewed the zoning commissioner's visit as an attempt to ascertain the credibility of witnesses in the case.

"The time to have objected was when he told everyone in the room that he was going to the site," said Bethel AME's lawyer, Robert A. Hoffman. "He's not basing his opinion on the site visit, he's basing his opinion on the testimony."

Appeals board member Charles L. Marks expressed concern about the visit and how much weight it held in the decision to approve the project.

"What the zoning commissioner has done is actually testify and not given you a chance to cross-examine," Marks said to Skullney.

The appeals board said yesterday it will meet at 9:30 a.m. Dec. 11 to deliberate the case.

Yesterday's hearing was part of a three-year quest by Bethel AME, one of Baltimore's most prominent congregations, to move from 1300 Druid Hill Ave. to the 255-acre Baltimore County site. The church, which has a congregation of about 11,000, says it has outgrown its 1,700-seat sanctuary in the city. The $10 million church would cover two acres on Old Court Road near Dogwood Road.

The community association has raised concerns that the new church would create severe traffic problems on Sundays. Old Court Road is a two-lane road, the only one running through Granite. In addition, New Antioch Baptist Church of Randallstown is planning to build a 2,500-seat church in the area.

Association members also contend that the AME church would alter the quality of life in their community.

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