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

Prince George's is rich in churches. More than 800 of them, as well as a handful of mosques, synagogues and Hindu temples, stand in a county of about 500 square miles.

Tax-exempt religious properties occupy 3,450 acres, according to an analysis by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. By comparison, Montgomery County's tax-exempt religious properties take up 3,093 acres; Fairfax's use 2,335.

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

The total land holdings of Prince George's religious institutions are valued at nearly $753 million, which includes land and buildings, less than 2 percent of the county's tax base. Were these properties taxable, they would bring in about $9 million a year to the county, officials estimate.

The largest single owner is the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, with 524 acres spread over 90 properties worth more than $90 million.

It is the dramatic growth of black Protestant denominations, however, that has drawn the concern of county officials.

For generations, black churches have played a pivotal role in African American communities and in the rise of the black middle class. They have created black-owned credit unions and insurance companies, and they have helped revive poor, urban neighborhoods across the nation.

Beginning in the early 1970s, as black parishioners in the District began moving to Prince George's and urban land prices made expansion more difficult, churches began to follow.

Some congregations moved into buildings abandoned by whites that had left for Southern Maryland. Others bought run-down shopping malls, movie theaters, department stores and even convenience stores. Funded largely by their members, some have bought land without a mortgage.

Of those, several evolved into some of the nation's largest mega-churches, becoming magnets for worshipers across the region. They include Reid Temple, Jericho City of Praise Baptist Church, with 19,000 members and 11 properties covering 73.8 acres in Landover; and Evangel Temple, an arena-sized building on nearly 40 acres in Upper Marlboro. Metropolitan Baptist Church, one of the District's largest, also has announced it will decamp to Prince George's, in Largo.

Their proliferation, church leaders argue, has helped draw to the county more middle-class residents who want to be near their spiritual centers and schools.

"I don't think you can put a price tag on that," Washington said.

The rise of mega-churches also has made the pulpit, a traditionally potent political force in Prince George's, even more formidable. Face time at Sunday services is an integral part of the campaign trail in the county, and politicians, many of them churchgoers themselves, are leery of approaching the issue.

"None of us are against God," Exum said.

The county, however, has been willing to use zoning regulations to limit church growth.

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