The way the Rev. Stephen Neel sees it, his South Columbia Baptist Church's effort to tear down a mid-19th century farmhouse to make room for a new church pits the forces of good against, well, other forces of good.
Neel, the church's pastor, says he understands why preservationists would want to save a historic site, but "we're there to minister to the people and minister to the needs of the community. I would hope that if it comes down to the building vs. the people, that we would choose people."
Howard County planners and state preservationists, however, are convinced that history need not perish for South Columbia Baptist to achieve its goals.
The county's Planning Board refused to grant the church TC special exception to demolish the building known as Moundland, which was built in 1846 behind Guilford Road, so that it would be able to construct a new church there.
The panel's decision supported the recommendation of a Department of Planning and Zoning staff report, which concluded the building should be saved because the county's 1990 general plan emphasizes preservation of historic sites. The county's Board of Appeals is scheduled to hear the case Jan. 3.
Moundland is a large 2 1/2 -story stone Georgian house with a gabled roof that sits on the hill of a 10-acre site. The church bought the building and the site in 1984 and uses it for office space while it holds services next door at Hammond High School.
South Columbia Baptist plans to build a 260-seat, 11,400-square-foot church that is 35 feet high with a 25-foot spire within 50 feet of the historic building. Neel said the $1 million church plans to expand on the land where the building sits.
The Maryland Historic Trust said the historic building should not be destroyed because it is a model of stone houses built in central Maryland and Pennsylvania in the mid-19th century.
"The original structure and its setting remain virtually intact, thus maintaining its historical integrity," Mark Edwards, deputy historic preservation officer for the trust, wrote in a letter to planners.
County planners and preservationists want South Columbia Baptist to build the church on another area of the 10-acre site.
Douglas A. Dunn, executive director of Preservation Maryland, a non-profit group, said Howard County has too few historic buildings left to allow another to fall. He dismisses the church's argument that the building is less valuable because a similar 19th century farmhouse is a mile away.
"The rabid pace of development is so fast that virtually every site is irreplaceable," Dunn said, adding that Moundland is in good condition for a 144-year-old structure that has gone without proper maintenance.
But church officials said in their application for a permit to demolish Moundland that it is dilapidated. They also said it is too close to the proposed church, impedes future church uses and doesn't conform to the architectural style of the new building.
Neel added that the church cannot afford to pay the $100,000 it will take to refurbish the structure and that no one has offered financial help. He said the 150 members of his church, which meets next door at Hammond High School, voted unanimously to seek permission to raze the building.
"We're not there to offend anybody, but somewhere along the line I'm asking, what rights does a property owner have?" he said. "We are not trying to be insensitive to their concerns. The decision we have made in terms of our request has not been an easy one. We don't want to be the heavy in this."
Thomas M. Meachum, the church's lawyer, added: "It concerns me that people volunteer the property owner to pay for something that the public wants to see preserved. When the public decides it wants to preserve things, historic sites, the public should pay for it."
Neel said church members still are studying whether they can move Moundland to another site, construct the new church on another area of that site or attach the church onto Moundland. He said each of those could be costly.
"We're at the point where we are looking at other alternatives, but there is a financial concern," he said. "We simply cannot afford to keep the house."