A church, a community and visions in conflict


March 02, 1997|By BRIAN SULLAM

ABOUT 34 YEARS ago, when The Rev. R. Herbert Fitzpatrick became minister of the First Baptist Church in the suburban Washington community of Riverdale, Joel and Cindy Greenwell were children in Davidsonville.

Joel and Cindy grew up, got married and made their lives in Davidsonville. They have no desire to be anywhere else.

Mr. Fitzpatrick also wants to be in Davidsonville. He wants to build a 36,600-square foot sanctuary, classroom and office complex so he can move his 2,000-member church from Largo.

The lot he has set his sights on is located next to the Greenwells' house and 10-acre farm.

Through sheer circumstance, the Greenwells and Mr. Fitzpatrick have assumed opposing roles in a larger drama playing out in Anne Arundel County. People seeking the peace of rural suburbia are running up against residents who feel their corner of paradise is about to be paved over.

"If they were building this in a city, you wouldn't be upsetting the community, but they are coming to a rural area where they are upsetting everyone," said Mr. Greenwell, sitting in his living room with a half-dozen concerned neighbors.

Changes in Riverdale

When Mr. Fitzpatrick took over the pulpit of the First Baptist Church of Riverdale in the mid-1960s, the community of Riverdale was primarily white. As the congregation began to grow beyond 250 members and additions were made to the church, the racial composition of Riverdale began to change from white to black.

Fifteen years ago, when the church, which had changed its name to Riverdale Baptist Church, had expanded as much as it could in Riverdale, Mr. Fitzpatrick decided to relocate farther east in Largo, where many of his congregants had moved.

At the new location, the church thrived and grew to 3,000 members. About 10 years ago, when blacks began moving into the communities surrounding Largo, church membership began to fall.

Five years ago, Mr. Fitzpatrick got the vision to build a new church in Davidsonville and obtained an option to purchase 41 acres at U.S. 50-301 and Route 424.

About the time Riverdale's membership peaked, Cindy and Joel Greenwell had been living in their small house on Old Davidsonville Road for four years.

They loved their dead-end road and close-knit neighborhood. Their daughter and son could play outside on the street, and Mrs. Greenwell never worried about their safety. Five years ago, when the house across the street with its 10 acres came on the market, Joel and Cindy decided to buy it. There was enough land for Mr. Greenwell to farm, which he had wanted to do for some time.

The Greenwell family expanded at its new location with the arrival of twin daughters three years ago and a goat two years ago.

Life seemed sweet, indeed. That is, until he and his wife found out they would be neighbors to a gigantic ecclesiastical complex that would cover the fields they now overlook with concrete, bricks and asphalt.

Mr. Greenwell, a burly man who is plant supervisor at Gomoljak Block Co., points to a large field that Riverdale Baptist wants to turn into a 351-car parking lot.

28 windows on a parking lot

"I have 32 windows in my house, and 28 of them will be facing a parking lot," he said.

"When Cindy and I bought this house and land, we had a vision. We would raise our children here, raise some animals and do some farming. Rev. Fitzpatrick is shattering that vision," he said.

His neighbors, Vincent and Marilyn Bell, George and Elsie Ward and Tracie Hovermale, nod in agreement.

Mr. Fitzpatrick, an affable man, seems genuinely puzzled that some are treating the proposed complex as if it were a strip mall or metal stamping plant. Sitting in the dark wood-paneled conference room of Edward O. Wayson Jr., the influential Annapolis zoning attorney, the white-haired, bespectacled pastor doesn't look like a despoiler of communities.

Mr. Fitzpatrick said his congregation will be a good neighbor.

That's not the way the Mr. Greenwell sees it. If Riverdale Baptist were the size of Holy Family Catholic Church (400-seat sanctuary and 179 parking spaces) where his family worships, he wouldn't mind having the church as a neighbor. But blueprints describe a 1,700-seat sanctuary, 300-seat chapel and 1,000-person cafeteria; Mr. Greenwell sees something else. This is not a church," he says. "It is a non-profit commercial enterprise."

He and his neighbors want the church to go through a special exception hearing so that the community can have input. County Council Bill 93-96 was supposed to deal with that question.

Now it appears the church may escape that scrutiny because its lawyers found a loophole. By reducing the size of its complex and putting half of its parking on the second of two parcels it is buying, the project can avoid a hearing.

"I kind of feel like one of those people who go to the beach and give food to the sea gulls," Mr. Greenwell said. "They fly off and go splat right on you."

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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