In an unexpected move, two Howard County councilmen have filed proposed legislation that would hinder Covenant Baptist Church's plan to build a church, school and senior housing complex on its Centennial Lane property in Ellicott City.
The church's plans for housing for the elderly were already in danger because the county Planning Board had recommended against the project. Now, the church's long-planned and previously approved church building and church school are also in jeopardy.
Democrat Guy J. Guzzone of southeastern Howard County and Republican Allan H. Kittleman of western Howard filed a bill Friday that would remove the church's land -- about 53 acres -- from access to public water and sewer service.
"We approached this issue from a fairness perspective," Guzzone said. "Fairness to everyone involved, including the community at large."
The councilmen said they are trying to preserve the integrity of the rural landscape surrounding the church.
Church officials said denying access to public water and sewer service would make construction of a church and school prohibitively expensive. They also said the legislation would stifle religious freedom in the county.
Church officials said the legislation is unfair to them and to other churches that might want to build or expand.
"We're shocked," said Darrell Baker, associate senior pastor of the church. "It affects every church that comes after us."
"The whole thing is the question of the sewer and water line," Guzzone said. "Wherever you draw a line, you could expect property owners who live on that line to ask for expansion out beyond the line. And my position is that we really need to hold that line, because the extension of sewer and water typically lends itself to increasing housing development and increased density."
The church could still build its church and church school on the property, even if it was removed from public water and sewer service. If the housing proposal is approved by the Board of Appeals this year, the church could build that, too.
The council will hold a hearing on the bill June 21, and a vote is expected early next month.
Concerns about costs
Baker said the legislation could make costs prohibitively high. He estimated that it would cost the church about $1.5 million to install a septic system, underground storage tanks, a sprinkler system and wells. If the church could get public water and sewer service, he said, it would cost the church less than $200,000.
Hundreds of neighbors have signed a petition opposing the project, and at a county Planning Board meeting in April, some powerful former politicians accused the church of acting in an underhanded manner.
Former County Executive Charles I. Ecker and former state Sen. James Clark Jr. testified that they helped assure the church's access to public water and sewer service only after receiving a promise that the church would not build housing on the property.
Baker denied that the church made such a promise and said Clark and Ecker helped the church gain access to public water and sewer service.
Guzzone and Kittleman said they do not believe the church deliberately deceived the county in its efforts to get public water and sewer service, but both said they think the church should not be able to build housing for the elderly on the property.
"I don't think the church intentionally tried to sneak one under anybody," Kittleman said. "I really think they were sincere. My concern is that that's not what was anticipated, and I don't think that's the proper use."
`Not a wise decision'
He said it was "not a wise decision" for the council to extend the public water and sewer lines farther west to include the church's property.
Church officials are framing the debate in religious terms. Telling their 350 or so congregants that God is on their side, Baker and Senior Pastor Danny M. Crow are urging them to fight the bill by barraging politicians with letters and e-mail.
"The devil is saying, `Lay down your dream,' " Crow told the con- gregation Sunday. "He's saying to our church corporately, `Lay down your dream.'
"Jesus can help you if you don't lay down your dream." "We will not go away," Baker promised the congregation. "We will not fold. It is our time to stand and fight. We stand and fight for our piece of property, our project, and we stand and fight for churches in the community."
Kittleman and Guzzone denied trying to stifle religious freedom in the county.
"I'm an evangelical Christian," Kittleman said. "I am very strong in my belief in Jesus Christ, so I would never in a million years try to do something like that."
Baker said that if the legislation passes, the church plans to appeal to Howard County Circuit Court and, if need be, "fight it to the highest court in the land."