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Bethel AME given OK for new church


Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of Baltimore's most prominent congregations, won a major victory yesterday in its three-year quest to build a 3,000-seat church in rural Granite, a project that drew stiff opposition from neighbors.

The approval by Zoning Commissioner Lawrence E. Schmidt was a setback for residents of the small community in western Baltimore County, who fear the church -- which will be larger than Meyerhoff Symphony Hall -- will snarl traffic on Sundays and forever change their quality of life. The sanctuary is planned for Old Court Road, a two-lane road and the only one through town.

Schmidt's 17-page decision acknowledged "that this large church will in some measure alter the nature of this locale." But he concluded that he had no option but to approve the project because a church is a permitted use on the 255-acre site.

The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, Bethel's senior pastor, said yesterday's decision marks a time "for the healing to begin. ... We didn't see this as personal. We understand how good people can have real concerns about their way of life and how it will change."

Of the opponents, he said, "We will be neighbors, and now we will work together to make our community a better place."

Greater Patapsco Community Association said it plans to appeal the decision to the county Board of Appeals. Still, Reid said the church will begin "identifying architects and looking at contractors."

The lawyer for the association said residents felt there was enough evidence to warrant scaling back the project's size. "We feel the weight of the evidence before the hearing examiner was clear that there will be substantial traffic problems," Francis X. Borgerding Jr. said.

Bethel AME has a congregation of about 11,000, half of whom live in Baltimore County. The church says it has outgrown its 1,700-seat sanctuary on Druid Hill Avenue and plans to construct a $10 million building on Old Court Road near Dogwood Road. The building will cover 2 acres and have 1,373 parking spaces.

The congregation will continue to use its Baltimore church after moving to the county, a practice that is common in other cities around the country, Reid said.

Bethel AME has been looking for a site for a new church since the mid-1990s. City officials, hoping to keep the large congregation there, tried unsuccessfully to find an appropriate location.

In 1997, the congregation signed a contract on a 37 acres in Owings Mills but dropped those plans because of high development costs. A year later, the church settled on the Granite site. The choice ignited a storm of opposition and a battle ensued that cost both sides thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Although Schmidt had the authority to reduce the size of the proposed church, he wrote, "A reduction in the size/capacity of the Bethel facility will ... not alleviate the concerns of the neighbors. ... If the seating capacity is reduced ... there will still be substantial traffic added to Old Court Road."

Schmidt agreed with the findings of a church-financed traffic study, which said that volume would increase, but not enough to cause problems. He dismissed testimony by a traffic expert hired by Greater Patapsco Community Association, who said Old Court Road would become seriously congested on Sundays.

He also noted that a State Highway Administration representative saw no major traffic problems. The state, Schmidt wrote, "charged with the responsibility for insuring safe and adequate public roads, is satisfied with the proposal."

Robert A. Hoffman, Bethel's lawyer, said the case, which stretched over eight months of county hearings, "got more scrutiny on this traffic issue than any other case I've been involved in."

Paul Dorsey, the community association president, lives 800 feet from the entrance to the church property and said traffic on Old Court Road already is "a serious safety issue which could only get worse. ... It's going to be extremely dangerous."

He said the decision was disappointing, but "it wasn't unexpected. I'm not supposed to say it, but I do think it's political. We really felt we had a strong case. I thought [Schmidt] at least would reduce [the size]."

"I'm sorry the hearing officer didn't attend the same [hearings] we did," he added.

Dorsey and other community leaders have criticized Schmidt's refusal to take into account other developments under way near the Bethel site when evaluating potential traffic problems.

The largest project, two miles east on Old Court Road, involves New Antioch Baptist Church of Randallstown. The congregation is building a 2,450-seat church near Windsor Mill Road, an intersection most Bethel parishioners likely will use to get to their new church.

But Schmidt wrote that county regulations precluded him from considering other projects.

"Had the County Council intended the Hearing Officer to consider proposed and anticipated developments in the neighborhood," he said, "such a requirement could have been written into the development regulations."

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