Rectory's tenant plan opposed Church: St. Margaret's near Towson may rent the pastor's home to recovering substance abusers, and neighbors plan a protest.

August 17, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

A plan to turn a church rectory into a home for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts has neighbors of a usually staid Towson-area community at odds with parish priest they feel betrayed them.

Members of the Cromwood-Coventry neighborhood near Perring Parkway are planning a rally Tuesday night outside St. Margaret's Episcopal Church, where a decision on the proposal will be voted on -- without neighbors having a voice.

The Rev. Walter C. Simmons, pastor of St. Margaret's, wants to rent his rectory to Oxford House, a national group that sponsors dwellings for recovering substance abusers. Because of federal fair housing laws covering such group homes as Oxford House, the residents cannot oppose it legally, they have been told.

Church neighbors say they are worried about the safety of their quiet, 45-year-old Baltimore County community where the four-bedroom rectory -- currently the home of Simmons -- is in the 1800 block of Cromwood Road.

The rally -- to show their frustration -- will take place at 7 p.m. as Simmons and eight members of the church vestry, or governing body, vote on the issue at a closed meeting.

"It will be a peaceful gathering," said neighbor Jim Westervelt, who bought the home he grew up in six years ago. "We're not against Oxford House. But it's wrong for the community."

Simmons, however, feels differently. "It is an exciting and appropriate ministry," said the soft-spoken priest -- for 2 1/2 years pastor of the church, most of whose 85 members do not live in the neighborhood. "The history of Oxford House has been successful. It seems the best choice."

The rectory likely would house eight to 10 males. The $2,000-a-month rental income from Oxford House -- which Simmons said the financially strapped church needs -- would go toward his living expenses when he moves out of the community and to contributions to the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

Sally Robinson, executive director of social ministries at the diocese, said, "It is not appropriate for the diocese to get involved," said "The parish is autonomous."

Nevertheless, Robinson said she approves of the church's direction: "It's an ideal location for Oxford House."

Nationwide, 634 Oxford Houses exist, 38 of them in Maryland. The only one in Baltimore County is in Timonium.

Homes self-governing

"We only pick good neighborhoods," said J. Paul Molloy of Silver Spring, a founder. A recovering alcoholic, he helped to form the ++ first group house in 1975.

The concept is to move the recovering alcoholic or addict from familiar territory to a new location for as long as needed, he said. "It buys the time they need to live clean and sober."

The homes are self-governing with no supervision. Members, who must be employed, are asked to leave if they fall off the wagon.

While neighbors of St. Margaret's applaud the organization's mission, they question whether it should be located at the church that since 1957 has served as a community center.

Children and parents use the tree-shaded playground, where they have donated money for equipment. Families gather there for outdoor concerts and holiday parties.

"The community has involvement in that place," said Paul Guzzo, who has lived in the neighborhood 29 years. "The major concern of people is, can I send my kids up there and feel safe."

He wonders why the church doesn't pursue other options, such as renting the house to another priest and his family, or using it as a facility for the disabled or a day care center for senior citizens.

"We think there are more appropriate uses for the rectory that should be considered and explored," he said.

Molloy and others involved with Oxford House say such community opposition is not unusual. But they have no qualms about using legal muscle to achieve their goals, they say.

One case, which went to the Supreme Court, solidified their stand. In a decision last year, the court said a federal law against discrimination in housing does not allow local governments to exclude group homes by defining what constitutes "family."

"Fifty-two times people have said, 'Not in my back yard,' " Molloy said. "We've taken 23 cases to court and won them all."

The threat of legal action discouraged the Timonium community from protesting an Oxford House on Charmuth Road five years ago.

"They represented to us that any challenge would result in a suit of discrimination being issued," said Eric Rockel, president of the Greater Timonium Community Council, adding that there have been no problems at the house.

The program overall has an 80 percent success rate, Molloy said. But it is the other 20 percent that worries the Cromwood community.

Worries about crime

"One is too many," said Harry Birkmaier, an original homeowner in the community who raised three children there. "If they drop out, they will want to get drugs and to do that they will assault or rob people."

On Wednesday, almost 150 residents unanimously voted against Oxford House at an emotional community meeting. They resolved to write letters to members of the vestry.

One vestry member, Ruth C. Franklin, who lives in the city's Hamilton section, supports Oxford House.

"I feel comfortable with it. I feel the people are not a danger. I would not hesitate to have them in my neighborhood."

But Rachel Neukam, a 37-year resident who calls herself the "matriarch" of the neighborhood, bemoans the actions of the vestry and Simmons in considering the plan.

"I had hoped at this point in my life, I could spend my remaining years in peace and safety," the 68-year-old widow said. "Now there could be devastating consequences. Father Simmons is moving out of the area and leaving us to take care of the consequences."

Pub Date: 8/17/96

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