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Baltimore County buys rural property once slated for megachurch

Taxpayers to pay $3M to preserve rural Baltimore Co property worth $1.9M

The Baltimore County Council voted unanimously Monday to approve the $3 million purchase of land in the rural community of Granite that had once been considered for a megachurch.

The county will buy 258 acres of undeveloped land owned by Bethel AME Church, the large Baltimore congregation. The money will come from county taxpayers and the state's Program Open Space.

In the late 1990s, Bethel proposed building a $10 million, 3,000-seat church on the property off Old Court Road east of Dogwood Road.

Neighbors said the congregation would overwhelm two-lane Old Court Road on Sundays, and that building a necessary roadway onto the property could disturb graves nearby. Neighbors and the church fought over the property in zoning hearings and courts for years.

Bethel, on Druid Hill Avenue in the Upton neighborhood of Baltimore, eventually opened a second location in Owings Mills. Church officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Paul Dorsey, who was involved in the legal fight as president of the Greater Patapsco Community Association, said he was glad to see the sale approved.

"The community is pleased in the way it turned out," he said.

Baltimore County will pay significantly more than the appraised value of the land. One appraisal last year set the value at $1.8 million; another set it at $1.965 million.

The state's portion, which comes from Program Open Space, will be $1,882,500, the average of the two appraisals. The county's portion, $1,117,500, will be used to release a lien on the property.

Ellen Kobler, a spokeswoman for the county government, said the price was negotiated with Bethel and is a good deal for the county.

"Any purchase of open space involves negotiations, and we believe this opportunity to add to the county's open space is worth the purchase price," she said.

Democratic Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver, who represents the area, said the sale of the property works out well for all parties: the church, the neighbors and the county.

He said the church can walk away from the property in a good financial position and neighbors can be assured the land won't be developed.

"This is a rural community, and it should stay that way," Oliver said. He said he is "very comfortable" with the purchase price.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz backed the purchase of the property, funds for which were included in this year's county budget.

"From an environmental perspective, this parcel is particularly beneficial to preserve as open space due to its large size and varied terrain featuring steep slopes, forest and streams," Kamenetz said in a statement.

The property will be used as "passive recreation," which may include activities such as walking and bird-watching. After the purchase is finalized, the county plans to seek feedback on how to use the property.

In other business, the council delayed action on a bill that would have made it easier for farmers to engage in money-making activities such as hayrides and corn mazes.

Councilman Todd Huff, a Lutherville Republican who grew up on a farm in Sparks, withdrew his agritourism bill and introduced a new version in a procedural move to keep the legislation alive as the council nears the end of its four-year term.

The bill had been scheduled for a vote Monday and faced possible defeat.

Huff's bill would have allowed farm owners to operate the extra farm-related activities "by right," without requiring approval from the county. It would also have allowed farmers to apply to host up to a dozen "celebratory events," such as weddings, per year.

Farmers supported the bill, but it came under heavy criticism from citizens planning groups, which said activities would draw traffic and noise to rural communities. Kamenetz had threatened to veto the bill.

Huff said the new version would eliminate the provision for celebratory events, but a draft was not available at Monday's council meeting. It could be voted on at the council's Nov. 17 meeting.

Huff, who was defeated in the Republican primary, said he hopes he can get the bill passed before he leaves office. "This has been an important issue to me for the past four years," he said.

pwood@baltsun.com

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