Dispute over planned church baffles, annoys circuit judge

Lawyers' preparation for hearing draws rebuke

November 04, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Sparks flew yesterday as Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Greater Patapsco Community Association faced off in Baltimore County Circuit Court, resuming a four-year argument over Bethel's plan to build a 3,000-seat sanctuary in rural Granite.

But the sparks weren't generated by the two parties. Instead, lawyers for both the church and the community had to deal with Judge John F. Fader II. After apologizing to the lawyers for arriving at the hearing 45 minutes late, Fader promised that things for them were about to get worse.

"I don't know what the devil this case is about. If I don't know what the devil a case is about in the first two or three pages, I don't read any more," he announced.

Bethel, one of the largest and most prominent congregations in Baltimore, announced plans in 1999 to move out of the city and into a new megachurch in Granite, a rural community southwest of Randallstown. Residents objected, worrying about traffic and the loss of the area's centuries-old history.

During yesterday's hearing, Fader had the lawyers restate what they're arguing about in a case that has bounced from hearing officer to appeals board to court and back again since 1999.

What the community contends is this: The county's hearing officer improperly determined the sanctuary's traffic impact and both he and the Board of Appeals failed to properly consider the historic crypts and gravesites on the property, title issues or the development's compliance with the community plan or the county's 2010 master plan.

The parties didn't make it through all of the issues yesterday, so the case will be continued later this month.

Essentially all the rulings in the saga have gone Bethel's way, so Fader's attention fell first on Ann Lembo, attorney for the community association, to explain what the group still contests.

"In 50 words or less, no more than 50 words, what are the issues in this case?" Fader demanded.

Lembo tried to explain two or three times without satisfying the judge. Her opposing counsel, James Dunbar, chimed in from time to time to help her with a date or detail, but eventually, Fader took over explaining the appellants' case.

He typed on a laptop while the lawyers stood with hands clenched behind their backs. After a few minutes, Fader read his version of the community's brief, though even he didn't manage to squeeze it into 50 words.

"A hundred and one," he muttered to himself.

Fader's efforts to cut to the chase were unsuccessful. The judge, who retires in a week, had scheduled the hearing for a half-day, but by 4 p.m. the parties hadn't yet made it through half of the community's issues.

The community association argued that Zoning Commissioner Lawrence E. Schmidt and the Board of Appeals, which reviewed his decision, should have considered more broadly the structures meriting protection as historical landmarks. Bethel's attorney, Dunbar, countered that because only one structure, a crypt, is specifically listed on any of the state's landmarks lists, the county acted properly in insisting that only it be preserved.

Next, the community argued that the county should have forced Bethel to go further in following state health codes and other laws regulating the moving of graves. Bethel contends that there is no reason to believe graves are anywhere other than in a cemetery near the crypt.

Finally, the community's lawyer discussed Schmidt's decision to gauge the traffic impact for himself by driving repeatedly past the church site. Fader left little question on what he thought of that.

"You can't do that," he said.

However, Bethel argued that because both parties knew about the visits but didn't object, the evidence Schmidt gathered, and the decision he made, should stand.

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