The Prince George's County Council dealt a setback yesterday to plans by the Evangel Temple to erect a controversial 3,200-seat sanctuary in a residential section of Largo when it denied the church's request for a sewage and water hookup.
But a church adviser said the congregation may proceed with its development plans anyway, a move that council members said could set up a legal confrontation with the county government.
The ministers of the Evangel Temple, who house their 2,000-member congregation at a Rhode Island Avenue church in Northeast Washington, are facing a class-action suit alleging that the ministers pressure church members to sell their houses and to obtain bank loans fraudulently in order to make donations to the church's $5 million fund-raising drive.
Council members, in denying the hookup request, said their action had nothing to do with the controversy about church funding. Instead, council members alleged that construction of the church, which would include a large chapel and a Sunday school, would impose substantial traffic, security and other burdens on a community that is virtually saturated with development.
The church plans to proceed with the construction of the 230,000-square-foot complex and to install a private septic and water system at a cost of at least $250,000, according to Edward Luckett, a real estate adviser to the church.
Luckett added that the church has "put no limit" on the funds it would expend to construct the septic system and that it expects to alleviate traffic problems by constructing access roads and left-turn lanes.
According to council members, a loophole in county law allows church construction in any type of zone except industrial, which could allow this residentially zoned project to proceed despite opposition from the county and the community.
The Evangel Temple, one of Washington's largest inner-city congregations, has been deeply divided in the past year by the fund-raising campaign -- which is intended to help pay for the Largo complex -- and by an effort by the white ministers who govern the church to bring more whites into the nearly all-black congregation. The church was founded by and is run by Bishop John Meares; it is a nondenominational Pentecostal church that strongly emphasizes submission to the authority of church leaders.
Meares and other church officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The new complex, to be built off Central Avenue and Church Road opposite Wild World Amusement Park, would overburden traffic-clogged Rte. 214, area residents and council members said.
"The facilities here are simply not adequate for that type of development. If you build this, you will end up with bumper-to-bumper traffic for miles every day," said council member Floyd E. Wilson Jr. (D-Glenarden).
Council members also they fear that church officials will develop the remaining 459 acres they own for high-density housing and other structures that would not conform with existing zoning regulations.
Although the water and sewer hookup was "the last legal roadblock" the council could impose on the project, Wilson said he believed that the council will try to slow the project by challenging the temple in court "on the grounds that we don't have the public amenities." Such a procedure could delay the project four to five years, he added.
"The only other thing we can do is to tie them up in the bureaucracy, such as slowing down the paper work or maybe losing the plans," Wilson said.
Some council members said that representatives of the church have unjustly accused the council of basing its decison on racial issues.
"Unfortunately, the head of the church is bringing up some nonissues which are simply not true." said council member Sue V. Mills. "This church was not singled out. By their own admission, the project would be larger" than the Washington Cathedral.
Timothy Ayers, a spokesman for County Executive Parris Glendening, said, "The issue has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with traffic."