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Tax Exempt and Growing, Churches Worry Pr. George's

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 14, 2005; Page A01

When the Rev. Lee P. Washington decided in 1997 to build his mega-church in northern Prince George's County, he proceeded cautiously.

He worried that homeowners in the upscale section of Glenn Dale, on high alert for signs of any major construction project, might balk at plans for the new Reid Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church. They might have objected to a spike in traffic or 5,000 parishioners descending on their community for services.

The Rev. Lee Washington opened Reid Temple AME Church in December after a low-key push to build on a large site in Glenn Dale. "Churches here have to operate in stealth mode," Washington says. "You have to go under the radar." (Photos Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

Church Property Value

Then there was the land. Church-owned property is tax exempt, meaning Reid would take 32 acres of prime real estate off the county's rolls.

So Washington reached out quietly to politicians, explaining that his congregation had outgrown the 770-seat sanctuary in Lanham it had occupied since leaving the District in 1984. He avoided publicity. And he didn't cut a single tree until every permit was in hand. The church opened in December.

"Churches here have to operate in stealth mode," Washington said. "You have to go under the radar."

Prince George's County, long a place of opportunity for urban black churches looking to grow, has become less welcoming to houses of worship. As the county's economic fortunes improve, lawmakers say they are concerned that tax-exempt, church-owned land is eating too deeply into Prince George's financial base, eliminating acreage that could generate revenue through residential and commercial construction.

The churches are also increasingly at odds with neighbors and elected officials in the nation's wealthiest majority-black county. Some residents regard the big, new churches with the same apprehension they would have about big-box stores or new roads: as a potential source of traffic, rising crime or falling property values.

"These are human, quality-of-living concerns that transcend matters of race," said Cain Hope Felder, a professor at Howard University's School of Divinity. "Middle-class African Americans see they are facing new problems, ironically created by the church leaving the city."

At a time when the county is trying to woo big developers and retailers, political leaders say they want to see more vacant land used for projects such as National Harbor, the planned $2 billion hotel, office and entertainment complex along the Potomac River.

"We don't oppose churches," County Council Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville) said. "The concern we have is that sometimes churches eat up a lot of land that could be used for other things."

Prince George's faces an additional challenge in increasing its revenue base. Since 1978, a voter-imposed cap on property-tax increases has limited spending.

"We're losing tax money and retail," council member Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant) said. "And increasingly, [churches] are requiring more space."

Ministers reply that their parishes were the spiritual and economic backbone of communities long before developers discovered the county. Their land provides room not only for growing congregations, they say, but for schools, credit unions, senior centers and child-care programs that fill voids left by cuts in government funding.

"They are fighting the wrong people," said the Rev. Harry Seawright, pastor of Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Camp Springs.

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