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Church battles landfill Adjacent cemetery contains graves of 4 ex-slaves, soldiers who founded congregation


The graves of four African-American soldiers in the Civil War have become the rallying point for a small black church battling a proposed landfill.

"This is our history, our heritage," said the Rev. Violet Hopkins-Tann, gesturing not only toward her 100-member St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was founded by former slaves, but also to the surrounding, historically black community along Gravel Hill Road in Harford County.

To Mrs. Tann, the enemy is Maryland Reclamation Associates Inc., which hopes to turn the old gravel pits on an adjoining 68 acres into a landfill for construction debris.

A landfill, with the accompanying rattle of dump trucks, and dust, dirt and debris, would bring the end of the church, Mrs. Tann said. "Who is going to want to attend this church or live in this community if there's a landfill here?"

Maryland Reclamation bought the site, which flanks the church on three sides, in 1988 -- when county zoning allowed it to be used as a landfill.

The Churchville company has gone to court to fight legislation passed by the Harford County Council in 1991 that rewrote zoning laws to make it impossible for the landfill to open. The case has been in the hands of the state Court of Appeals for 14 months, and it is not known when a decision will be issued.

St. James has picked up allies during its battle, including University of Maryland School of Law students and faculty members, who provide free legal services through a school law clinic.

County Council President Joanne S. Parrott plans to introduce legislation Tuesday that would make the church's half-acre cemetery a historic landmark -- an added protection in the event Maryland Reclamation wins its appeal.

"We have to protect this historic site for future generations," Mrs. Parrott said.

The church was founded at the site in 1865, but the original building is gone. Portions of the current structure date to the 1880s, Mrs. Tann said.

Among those buried in the cemetery are four of the church's founders -- Louis Bowser, Santa Bowser, Peter Moses and Abraham Turner, all former slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation who fought in the Union Army's "colored infantry" and eventually became farmers.

The cemetery is adjacent to a 100-foot gravel pit that would be part of the Maryland Reclamation landfill, running west along Gravel Hill from Earlton Road near Havre de Grace.

John R. Greiber Jr., an attorney for Maryland Reclamation, is adamant that the landfill will not harm the graveyard, church, community or environment.

"We agreed to meet every single contingency the county could think of when we bought the property, we agreed to donate land to the church as a buffer, and we agreed to enter the site from Earlton Road and not drive trucks past the church," he said.

The landfill, which will be used for such construction debris as timber and bricks, eventually will be completed with a layer of topsoil and grass, he said.

"It's going to look a lot better than what's there now," Mr. Greiber said of the pitted site marked by raw red clay, a few weeds and scrub brush. Land around the church drops sharply, by more than 100 feet.

Such arguments don't sway the church pastor.

Mrs. Tann said she believes Maryland Reclamation proposed a landfill at the site in part because much of the community is African-American and poor. "They think if they wait long enough, we'll give up. Well, that's not going to happen," she said.

Maryland Reclamation says it is not discriminating against the community -- and that it will not give up the fight. Regardless of the appeals court decision, Mr. Greiber said, the company plans to sue the county "for an astronomical sum."

The Maryland Department of the Environment, after a lengthy reviewing process, gave the company permits to open in 1991, he said.

"Here you have a state agency saying that what we want to do is legal," he said, "and then the county decides to rewrite the laws to make it illegal."

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