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Overland Bridge Project Becomes Battleground Between Church And State

Credit Peter Haden / WJCT News
Glorious Bethlehem Temple's Pastor Donald Richardson (holding the microphone) and his congregation

The widening of Interstate 95 on Jacksonville’s Southside has come with the usual growing pains of progress: traffic congestion, lane closures and noise. The project has put one church congregation between the road and a hard place — and into a legal battle with the state.

If you come to worship at Glorious Bethlehem Temple and you forget your tambourine, Pastor Donald Richardson says, don’t worry. Richardson says some parishioners just pick up an instrument and join in. 

For the 85 congregants of this Pentecostal church near Philips Highway, giving praise means making a joyful noise.

That’s why being located a stone’s throw from I-95 never bothered them.

Pastor Richardson's wife Sheila Richardson said, "This has been here for 50 or 60 years. That’s really not the problem with us because we’re loud too."

But now the church does have a problem with the location: not because of what’s there, but because of what’s missing. In 2010, the Florida Department of Transportation determined it needed to buy up the church's land — along with two dozen houses in the area — and raze them to create a drainage pond for the I-95 Overland Bridge project.

But the church refused FDOT’s offer of just over $390,000 for the property, saying it wasn’t enough to build a replacement church.

After the two parties could not agree on a price, FDOT redrew the plans for the drainage pond — to surround the church. All the neighbors sold out and left. With construction underway, the 60-year-old building has become an island.

Pastor Richardson is concerned about the safety of his congregation.

"I have to take precautions with my people — especially at night — and tell them not to be down here by themselves at the church because it’s too dangerous, Richardson said. "Something could happen to somebody down here, and nobody would even know it for a while."

Ron Tittle, public information officer for the Florida Department of Transportation says the state offered the church fair market value for the property. Tittle says he empathizes with the church, but the state could not give the it the amount the church wanted.

"To be good stewards of the taxpayer dollars, it’s just not the right thing for us to do,” Tittle said. “Our engineers looked at the plan and changed [it]. So, we didn’t need then at that point to take the church’s property."

The church sued the state in 2013, claiming that it misused its power. Some legal wrangling ensued, and the two parties are now in mediation. If they cannot agree on a settlement, the case will likely be heard in a Jacksonville court next month.

Peter Haden is an award-winning investigative reporter and photographer currently working with The Center for Investigative Reporting. His stories are featured in media outlets around the world including NPR, CNN en Español, ECTV Ukraine, USA Today, Qatar Gulf Times, and the Malaysia Star.