Ben Hill bedevils community

Plans for mega church expansion has neighbors singing a not-so-heavenly tune

It’s not hard to tell who the bad guy is in most battles between developers and neighborhoods. Usually it’s the guy with the condo plans and the dollar signs in his eyes.

When the developer is a church and God is supposedly the architect, however, defining roles becomes somewhat more problematic.

Iona Walker knows that first-hand. She and her southwest Atlanta community are fighting to keep their neighborhood intact in the face of plans for a gargantuan new Ben Hill United Methodist Church worship center on Campground Road. In taking on Ben Hill, Walker, who is also a member, faces one of the most politically powerful congregations in Atlanta. Her foes include a group of ministers on a quest for the holy grail of a special use zoning permit.

To Walker, what the City Council eventually decides will determine whether churches have to play by the same rules as any other developer.

Ben Hill, stuck in the fork of Fairburn and Campground roads, is part of an ever-growing list of McChurches around the metro area that have managed to build a congregation in the thousands and then had to fight its own community to find space for its facilities. In this church’s case, that means finding room for 9,500 members.

The proposed building is a behemoth of close to 200,000 square feet set on a 22.7-acre, currently wooded lot. Inside the structure, plans call for a 5,000-seat worship center, a health club with basketball court and weight and aerobics rooms, as well as space for classrooms and conference rooms. If plans go through, it will be surrounded by more than 1,700 parking spaces.

The new building isn’t just about praising God. Clearly, the church is planning a moneymaker, a building with space to hold conferences, to draw crowds.

Walker says: not in my back yard. And she means it literally. The proposed parking lot would approach within 50 feet of her fence line. She can barely imagine the glare of lights shining down on newly blacktopped land. Currently, her living room window looks out onto a tiny oasis of stillness that is filled with elderly hardwoods, deer and quiet. She’s lived in her house for 33 years.

So far, Walker and her neighbors have come out on the winning side in the fight against the church, though, the tide seems to be turning.

Last year, the area’s Neighborhood Planning Unit voted down plans for the church by a 65-14 margin.

Charles Bryant, chairman of NPU-P, says the building plans are simply too large for the area.

“It would create a traffic nightmare,” Bryant says. The church is in a residential neighborhood with narrow access streets that already bottleneck every Sunday from the traffic caused by Ben Hill and three other churches on Fairburn Road.

“I deserve a place that I don’t have to die in traffic,” says Betty Pledger, a 33-year resident of nearby King George Lane.

Normally, the City Council and its Zoning Committee, which meets Jan. 30 to discuss the issue, follow the recommendation of the NPU in neighborhood disputes, but at the same time, churches traditionally haven’t had to deal with the same kind of scrutiny regular developers have to put up with. Making matters more complicated is Ben Hill’s political stature. Robb Pitts and Shirley Franklin both spoke at the church during their campaigning for mayor.

Walker says that District 11 City Councilman Jim Maddox intends for the special use permit to be pushed through council. Maddox says that’s not true.

“I’m on the side of the community,” he says, but there may be room to compromise.

Walker, though, isn’t budging, and neither is Ben Hill’s minister, the Rev. McAlister Hollins, who has preached to his congregation that the new building, called the New Millennium Ministry, is inspired by God. Hollins did not return phone calls from Creative Loafing.

“The New Millennium Ministry is God’s vision, as revealed to our senior pastor ... ” reads a March brochure promoting the expansion. God’s vision comes with a hefty price tag for members. “The Rev. Hollins has requested $100 per person, per month, for adults ... ” the brochure continues.

So the stakes are high, and Walker says Hollins has routinely preached against the community. It makes for plenty of uncomfortable Sundays.

“He says it’s God’s vision, but I say God is not in the middle of confusion,” Walker says.

Pledger, who is feisty and not the least bit intimidated, counters: “I don’t know much about God, but I have a feeling God doesn’t want all the trees cut down.”

The pair plan to take the fight as far as it will go. The church is just like any other developer looking to stomp all over the life the community has created, they say.

If it goes to court, then it will go to court, Pledger asserts. If she loses, she told Starnes that she would “put my body in the street. I will do it. I’m 72 years old. I don’t have anything to lose.”??