Church's housing proposal rejected

Covenant Baptist misled county, ex-politicians say

April 09, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Planning Board voted yesterday against allowing a church to build a senior housing complex on its Centennial Lane property in Ellicott City because the project would destroy the area's rural nature and the church possibly deceived the county.

Two prominent former politicians -- former County Executive Charles I. Ecker and former state Sen. James Clark Jr. -- testified that several years ago Covenant Baptist Church officials told them they would never build housing on the property.

As a result, they said, they helped the church gain inclusion in the Metropolitan Water and Sewer District, which gave the church cheaper access to water and sewer. But it also laid the groundwork for further development of the property.

Church officials strongly denied deceiving anyone. They still hope to win approval from the Board of Appeals, which will hear the case May 6. The Planning Board unanimously rejected the proposal.

The church has gained county approval for a church building and a church school, and it wants permission to build 90 townhouses and a community center for the elderly, which hundreds of neighbors oppose. Of the approximately 100 people who attended the meeting yesterday, about 50 came to voice their concerns.

"From the beginning, it was going to be a church religious facility and a school," Ecker said. "There was never any talk of housing. In fact, they said they would not build housing."

"If it had included housing," he said, "I wouldn't have presented it for approval in the metropolitan district."

Clark said that when the church came to him for help several years ago, he sympathized with its needs but had one question: "If you get into the metropolitan district, what's going to keep you from intense zoning?"

"They assured us they had no intention of doing that," he said, adding that "we were appalled when this proposal was put before us."

Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the Howard County Office of Planning and Zoning, said the debate boils down to: "Did we get snookered?"

The Rev. Darrell Baker, associate senior pastor of the church, said during yesterday's meeting that he does not recall the church promising not to build houses on the property. After the meeting, he said that Clark and Ecker did not help the church gain access to public sewer and water.

"It comes down to our word against theirs," he said, acknowledging their influence but adding that it doesn't make them truthful.

"We have a president of the United States who told us specific things that we found weren't true," he said. "I have to lean more towards integrity in the church rather than integrity in the government because integrity matters to us."

Baker has said that the church hopes to make about $1.8 million from selling about 52 acres of its land to developers for construction of senior housing. He said the money would be used for construction of a church and school building. The church would neither own nor manage the senior housing, he said.

The parcel in question is surrounded by hundreds of acres protected by an agricultural preservation easement, Rutter has said, and cannot be developed.

More than 400 of those acres are owned by Clark and his daughter and son-in-law.

Department of Planning and Zoning staff members recommended against the development on the grounds that it would not fit into the surrounding rural landscape and would require too much clearing, grading and paving.

Vincent Guida, an attorney representing the church, told the board that the law allows for townhouses and that's all that should matter.

"People don't want to see townhouses in rural areas, and I can understand that. But that's not the rule of the law," he said.

Mark Tapscott, one of about 50 church members who came to the hearing yesterday, accused those who oppose the project of not wanting development in their back yards and said it didn't send a good message.

"I don't think this county wants to say that elderly people are not welcome here, and that's one of the implications," he said.

Joan Lancos, a member of the Planning Board, disagreed.

"This is not a senior issue," she said. "This has to do with the county's general plan for preservation of the rural west.

Pub Date: 4/09/99

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