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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Little Church that Could

Air Date: Week of

Karen Kelly reports about a small Methodist congregation outside Albany, N.Y., which found it could do something about stopping development, and in the process change the way the entire town is dealing with suburban sprawl.


CURWOOD: Atlanta, of course, has no monopoly on sprawling development. Even the most remote states have plenty of strip malls, pit stops, and paved over places. Many people feel helpless to stop sprawl development once it gets started, but not everyone, as this story from upstate New York about a man and his church illustrates. Karen Kelly reports.

(Organ music and ambient conversation)

KELLY: The Sunday service is about to start at the Macounville United Methodist Church in Gilderland, New York, about 10 minutes outside of Albany. No one seems to be in a hurry. Friends are lingering in the back. Parents struggle to get coats off their children. Finally, everyone falls into place. A choir of various shapes and sizes heads down the aisle.

(Choir sings a hymn)

KELLY: Carl Letson has been coming here for 15 years. He says the congregation is like an extended family. So when a company called the Pyramid Corporation approached them last summer, he got concerned. The corporation owns the Crossgates Mall. It's a 1.5 million square foot complex, the size of 28 football fields, and it borders the church property.

LETSON: They sent in some young, well-dressed individuals, who obviously had been schooled in public relations and marketing techniques. And they basically came in and told the congregation that they were going to buy the church. Not they would like to buy the church, but they were going to buy the church. And when they bought the church, we could find another place to have our religious services, etc., and they were doing it with us. They were coming as good neighbors.

KELLY: The visitors told the congregation they wanted to expand the shopping center to make it the second largest mall in America. It already has more than 240 stores. The company's plan was to double that, add a hotel and parking garages. They said lots of neighbors had already agreed to sell their homes. All they needed was the church property. The church members thought the company's offer was too low. But Carl Letson says something else was holding them back.

LETSON: Parents stood up and talked about how they had buried their grandparents there. Their children had been baptized there. They had been married there. And that was more than just dirt.

KELLY: The congregation told the developers they wouldn't sell. So the company made plans to build around them. In response, Letson and other church members formed a group called FORCE: Friends Organized for Responsible Community Expansion. Their mission: to stop the construction of the second largest mall in America.

MAN: I agree with you. I think the parking issue is the critical issue, other than the comprehensive planning process...

KELLY: A small group of FORCE members gathers in the church's meeting room. Letson presides in a baseball cap and a T-shirt fitted over thermal underwear. Tonight's topic is the upcoming town election. Letson and the 100 or so active members do everything they can to influence local politicians. They write letters to the editor in area newspapers. They activate a phone tree to get volunteers out for every town meeting. And they target people like Jerry Yerbery, the Gilderland town supervisor. He oversees the town board. It, along with the Zoning Board of Appeals, will make the final decision on whether to change the current zoning laws to allow the mall to expand. The vote is expected some time next year. But Yerbery says he won't be lobbied.

YERBERY: We don't listen just to the voice of development, and we don't listen just to the voice of the environmentalists. That organization specifically would only be one part of the community. So, I don't think I would give them any more or less weight than any other citizen coming in that wanted to express her views.

(Echoing voices)

KELLY: It's 5:30 on a Wednesday, and Crossgates Mall is pretty quiet. Groups of teenagers roam the hallways. Happy hour patrons start to file into a sports bar.

(Music and pool playing)

KELLY: Twenty-one-year-old Matt Sousa is shooting a game of pool with his brother. They both work here. Sousa says expansion in recent years has made the mall big enough. He points to 2 movie theaters, 3 upscale department stores, and 2 of just about everything else.

SOUSA: I don't think it's a good idea that they would double their size, because if you look at the revenue that the mall has had within the last couple of years, it really hasn't increased or decreased. It's pretty much stayed the same.

KELLY: The mall's owners said the expansion would bring in new jobs. They pay full-time employees about $12,000 a year. Meanwhile, the average family in Gilderland makes more than $40,000 a year. And residents also worry about the traffic jams a bigger mall would bring. They fear their sewer system can't handle the runoff from huge parking lots. And they point out that the volunteer fire department and rescue squad are already overwhelmed. FORCE members have protested for months. And at a recent town meeting, they achieved their first victory. Town leaders placed a temporary halt on all major construction at the mall and elsewhere. Town supervisor Jerry Yerbery says he realized many people shared the same concerns.

YERBERY: He heard loud and clear from many of the residents and property owners that the mall is big enough. And I think that's the stance that we took.

KELLY: Now, residents and local leaders are developing a 20-year master plan for future town development. They're looking at everything, from the width of the sidewalks to the number of businesses on each block. As a result, Carl Letson says the community finally gets a chance to plan its own future. But the town board has the final say. They would have to pass laws to put the master plan changes into effect. And the mall's owners have not given up. They filed paperwork in court to pave the way for a lawsuit.

(Organ music; the choir sings)

KELLY: But at the Macounville United Methodist Church, people feel a new sense of pride. They say they've not only saved their church, they caused their neighbors to stop and think about the town's future. As Carl Letson sees it, the balance of power has shifted.

LETSON: There was basically a defeatist attitude in our town that it was a done deal. And Pyramid was just going to steamroll over the town. And then this little congregation of Methodists stood up and said no. And ever since then, you know, our congregation walks around the community, if people recognize them as members of the Macounville United Methodist Church, they go out of their way to thank our congregation members for standing up.

(Choir and organ continue)

KELLY: For Living on Earth, I'm Karen Kelly in Gilderland, New York.



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