Dirt access route leads to church controversy Minister fights effort by congregation to put parking lot on his road

November 20, 1997|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

The Christian principles of forgiveness and brotherly love are being tested by a contentious dispute, between a minister and an Elkridge church over a narrow dirt road, that might lead to court.

The Rev. Roland Howard, a lifelong resident of Elkridge, is fighting a proposal by St. Stephens African Methodist Episcopal Church to build a 37-space parking lot. The lot would be across Homeplace Lane, a winding, half-mile private driveway that stretches from Mayfield Avenue to 2 acres that constitute his family's homestead.

Howard, the 72-year-old pastor of Banneker Christian Community Church in Columbia -- who was ordained at St. Stephens 37 years ago -- argues that the parking lot would deny him access to the property and its log cabin, which was home to three generations of Howard's family.

Pastor vows battle

"That would phase me out completely," Howard says of the proposal. "I love the church and would do anything I can for it, but I'm not going to let anyone close the door on my constitutional right."

The driveway is on land owned by the county that would be leased to the church for the parking lot. Howard says the original deeds stipulated that the driveway must be preserved.

Church and county officials, who asked the County Council on Monday night to approve the parking plan, contend that they have tried to assure Howard that he would not be cut off from his family's homestead, that he would have access by driving through the parking lot to his property.

"St. Stephens sees itself as a good neighbor," says the Rev. Alicia D. Byrd, a Lanham resident who has been pastor of the 76-year-old church since 1988. "But as pastor of the church, I am hurt and troubled by what's been said about our church. It's not right that the church's name is being dragged through the mud."

Some church members accuse Howard of being unreasonable.

"I don't see it as a two-way feud," said Avis Corbin, a steward at St. Stephens. "We're not at odds with him. He's the one who has problems with the church."

Howard's stand backed

But at least one member supports Howard's stand.

"There's not room back there for anything," says Sadie Anderson, a member of St. Stephens for 75 years, referring to the church's plans for the property. "I'm disappointed by what Reverend Byrd is doing, and I don't think it's right."

The dispute stems from a five-year plan by the church to expand and update its facilities on a 1-acre site on Mayfield Avenue.

Church members have owned that land since 1874, first constructing a church there in 1892. The present church was built in 1921.

In March, the county Board of Appeals approved plans to raze the church and build a larger one. Byrd says the church has two Sunday morning services to accommodate a congregation that has grown from 40 members in 1988 to 130 members.

The plans also entail leasing the adjoining county land to build -- along with the parking lot -- a community center that would feature a child day care area on the first floor and a homework center and Internet training program for children on the second floor.

"I'm tired of hearing about kids who are not doing well in school or are being a detriment to society," Byrd says. "It's time we do something about it. Now we have the opportunity to take a preventive measure."

Howard says he is not against the church's expansion, but must have guaranteed access to his property, located about a half-mile south of the church, where he maintains a pig farm.

"I would lose out on my business," Howard says. "I'm not going to let anyone take bread out of my mouth."

Tubman visited cabin

The log cabin, which is listed on the Maryland Inventory of Historical Properties, was frequented by Harriet Tubman while she helped more than 300 black people escape slavery on the Underground Railroad.

Byrd argues that Howard is opposing the church's plans because he is trying to sell his property to a developer.

"The bottom line is that people want what they want," Byrd says. "We're not anti-development, but if a development were to go back there, it wouldn't make sense to go through our property."

James M. Irvin, director of the Department of Public Works, says he has offered Howard a license that would allow him access through the parking lot to his property.

But Howard points out that the license could be withdrawn at any time by the county.

'Anything is possible'

"Theoretically, anything is possible," concedes Irvin. "But I don't know why that would happen. There would have to be a substantial reason or cause for that, and I don't see that happening."

Howard says he wants a guarantee from the county that the license could never be withdrawn.

If the County Council votes Dec. 1 to approve the proposal, Howard promises to take the matter to court.

Howard also criticized Byrd for failing to meet with him more than twice since St. Stephens announced its plans a year ago.

"The church is not the bad guy," Howard says. "It's the pastor who feels that she's going to come from Washington and dictate to me what's going to happen."

Byrd denies wrongdoing or malice on her end.

"There's never been any hesitancy on my part to meet with Reverend Howard," Byrd said. "I'm trying to take the high road. Regardless of how I feel about Reverend Howard's position, I'm not going to get into a mudslinging war."

Pub Date: 11/20/97

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