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Developers, engineers of church at Grafton Shop and Route 23 pledge to work with neighbors

Bishop Rob Northwood grew up in northern Harford County, along Rocks Road, and he expressed his empathy with those who live along the similarly narrow Grafton Shop Road regarding their concerns about traffic safety, should the county approve plans to build a new church for Northwood’s congregation in their Forest Hill neighborhood.

“I used to travel Grafton Shop, and [traffic] has become tremendously worse,” Northwood said during a recent Harford County Development Advisory Committee hearing. “There’s no argument from us that it’s worse.”

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Northwood is pastor of The Church of Reconciliation in Bel Air. Church officials plan to build a new church, with a seating capacity of 299, on a 43.6-acre tract at Grafton Shop Road and Route 23.

“Something is going to go up there, and we feel as though this is the lowest impact,” Northwood said.

Plans to subdivide the agriculturally-zoned tract into three lots were presented to the DAC during the body’s Dec. 4 meeting. The church, with an administrative wing, fellowship hall and separate rectory building, will be developed on one lot, and the other two lots are slated for residential dwellings.

The church lot and first residential lot will be accessed from Grafton Shop Road, and the second residential lot from West Jarrettsville Road.

Two Grafton Shop Road residents expressed concerns during the Dec. 4 DAC meeting about speeding drivers on Grafton Shop and the multiple crashes — a number of them fatal — that have happened at Grafton Shop and Route 23 over the years.

Those two residents, Bill Dulaney and Mary Monk, returned two weeks later when the detailed site plan was presented to the DAC on Dec. 18 with more people in tow.

The site plan indicates an 8,800 square-foot sanctuary, with a 4,000 square-foot attached fellowship/education hall and an attached 2,100 square-foot administrative wing. There also is a detached 5,000 square-foot, two-story rectory with six bedrooms planned for the church lot.

“Adding all those other cars, without some type of traffic control, is not going to turn out good,” Dulaney said.

County Councilman Chad Shrodes, who represents northern Harford, has urged county and state officials to push for a roundabout at Grafton Shop and Route 23 to alleviate congestion and improve safety, but the State Highway Administration has yet to put forth any plans.

Water and sewer

People expressed concerns to the DAC members about stormwater runoff and the impact on neighbors’ wells, as well as traffic. The church will get its water from wells and use on-site septic systems to handle sewage.

“The water runoff right now is actually pretty bad on that road when it’s really raining, and I imagine when you take all that soil away to make blacktop, it’s going to be even worse,” Dulaney said.

Tom Uzarowski, who lives about a mile and a half from the site, said he does not understand how so many people, nearly 300 worshippers at a maximum, could be allowed onto the site. The land is currently used as a farm field.

“If just a third of them flush the toilet, that’s a heck of a lot of septic reserve area [needed],” he said.

Uzarowski said his well had 600 gallons of reserve water when it was originally built, but the reserve is now down to about 250 gallons.

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“We all run off the same aquifers,” he said.

Uzarowski also noted Harford County could expand its development envelope north to include the area around Grafton Shop and Route 23, meaning public water and sewer would be extended, and it could be rezoned for more extensive development after the church is built.

He said the nearby Route 24 already has significant traffic congestion. He has been traveling to southern York County, Pennsylvania, to do more and more of his shopping, rather than go to Bel Air.

“Why does our county executive keep saying, ‘Let’s keep it rural’?” Uzarowski asked. “It makes no sense for people that live anywhere within a couple miles of this area.”

There are wetlands and streams on the lot slated for building the church, and developers must create “appropriate buffers” along the streams and at the edges of non-tidal wetlands. They also must adhere to Maryland Department of the Environment guidelines when improving the lot since it is in a Tier II watershed, said Crysta Draayer, who represents the county Department of Planning & Zoning on the DAC.

A Tier II watershed includes waters with quality which is “significantly better than the minimum requirements,” according to the Maryland Department of the Environment website.

Moe Davenport, chairman of the DAC, said developers must comply with current stormwater management regulations and build facilities on site to capture runoff. There also could be some grading and shoulder work along Grafton Shop Road that might help, he noted.

The county is requiring improvements to Grafton Shop and West Jarrettsville Road, including widening both roads with a 30-foot right-of-way.

Lisa Kalama, representing the Health Department, addressed concerns about well water, noting that “we can’t control the waters that are under the ground,” but health officials must ensure that anybody who develops a lot can get water to it.

“If we don’t have a source of water, the lot basically becomes a non-developable lot, so those are things that we look at ahead of time,” she said.

Traffic challenges

The county, based on a traffic impact analysis submitted by the developer, is requiring improvements to the intersection of Route 23 and Grafton Shop Road to mitigate the impact from the church project, according to Draayer and Rich Zeller, who represents the SHA.

His agency does not object to approving the current site plan, since access will be to and from a county road, but the SHA will review and issue an access permit for any intersection improvements that happen within state-maintained rights-of-way, Zeller said.

Sean Welch, who grew up along Grafton Shop Road and now lives in Carroll County, challenged plans to only create access from Grafton Shop.

“Unless the church can confirm that they’re not going to let people go right out of their lot to go to that [intersection at Grafton Shop and Route 23], I don’t see how you can put an egress or an access point on Grafton Shop Road,” said Welch, who noted he found 15 articles online related to deaths at the highway intersection.

Welch’s mother, Patricia, still lives on Grafton Shop, and she also attended the DAC hearing and shared her concerns about water supply and traffic. She said it “doesn’t make one bit of sense to me” to have access from Grafton Shop.

“We have a community of about a dozen houses — it’s quiet, it’s lovely,” she said. “You do have to take your chances and time it right to go get the mail.”

Mailboxes for Grafton Shop residents have been placed on the opposite side of the street, so they must navigate traffic as they cross to pick up their mail.

Sean Welch asked why the site could not be designed with access to and from Route 23 — drivers make a right turn to get in from Route 23 and make another right turn onto the highway when leaving.

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“It’s the safest way to go through,” he said.

Zeller said Route 23 is a controlled-access highway, however. He noted the developer has not sought access to it, “and even if they did, we wouldn’t allow access to 23.”

“When you have article after article, and fatalities on here, you don’t have a roundabout, I’m not sure how putting more traffic in that intersection at any time would be a feasible use,” Welch said.

David Taylor, of the Abingdon engineering firm David G. Taylor and Associates, presented the site plan. He stressed that the nearly 300-member church will not put 300 cars on the road every day, and that the majority of people will be at the site on Sundays.

“When you add another 150 cars on Sunday, it’s going to be a nightmare,” Dulaney said. “That’s going to be 150 more chances that somebody’s going to get smashed at that intersection.”

Working together

Taylor emphasized that developers want to work with the community, as well as the county and state.

“We’re here to work with everybody,” he said. “We want to have a church that everyone feels good about.”

Taylor noted that “nobody can 100% engineer or design so that our lives are perfect,” and that improvements to roads such as as widening can lead to more drivers speeding.

“Whether there’s the possibility of traffic-calming devices, maybe that’s something that needs to be discussed,” he said.

Sean Welch suggested that “you can take Grafton Shop out of play.”

“We’re here to discuss any ideas,” Taylor replied, although he did not commit to seeking access from another road.

“We understand your concerns,” he told residents. “We’re not adversarial; we want to work with everybody.”

Dulaney said his wife is looking forward to the church opening and that his opposition is “nothing personal about the church.”

"You can show that you’re being a good neighbor by really taking our concerns into consideration,” he said.

Northwood, the pastor, assured Dulaney that church officials are doing so. He stressed that he understands traffic concerns, as his son recently bought a home on West Jarrettsville Road, and he and other family members will live in the rectory.

“I am telling you that what we’re talking about does impact our lives as well as yours,” Northwood said. “We do care about, and we appreciate everything you’ve said.”

Northwood and Taylor, as well as church deacon Mark Carico, stayed after the meeting to talk with residents.

The bishop told The Aegis that the congregation is growing, especially with younger people. He said officials selected the site for the new church based on their finances, plus they determined “through prayer that we were called to be here” along Grafton Shop Road.

Uzarowski acknowledged he would prefer to have the church, rather than "a new, big development.”

“I’d rather see a church there and maintain the open spaces,” he said.

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