Church focus of land debate

Neighbors question motives of pastor as plans expand

August 05, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Darrell Baker dreams of one day building a mega-church in Howard County that will attract people from far and wide and convince even the nonreligious to give their lives to Christ.

First, though, he has to face another challenge: building a church to house the 400-or-so congregants of Covenant Baptist Church, where he is senior associate pastor. That has proved harder than he thought. His efforts to develop the church's land off Centennial Lane in Ellicott City have landed him in the middle of a nasty dispute and caused neighbors to question his intentions, integrity and character.

A bespectacled man who speaks in a soft Southern drawl, Baker has always thought of himself as an administrator, a man who works behind the scenes. But now his quiet efforts from several years ago have come back to haunt him and have caused people to wonder: Who is this man, a man of the cloth no less, willing to risk the wrath of hundreds of neighbors to get his way?

Baker, 34, is from Atlanta, where he comes from an extended family of developers. After graduating from Samford University, a Southern Baptist school in Birmingham, Ala., he became a businessman, working at various times for Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Chick-Fil-A, Delta Airlines and Federal Express.

He still thinks of himself as an administrator.

"I spent 10 years in corporate America," he said. "And when I look at the church, I guess it's hard for me not to look at it somewhat as a business." Just like a business, he said, the church is in trouble if it isn't growing.

"Growth is what the church is supposed to be about," he said. "The church is a living organism, and if it's not growing, it's either dying or it's plateauing."

Baker is so interested in growth, and so serious about a mega-church, that in 1993, while working full time as a pastor, he enrolled in a doctoral program at Talbot Theological Seminary in Los Angeles to concentrate on organizational leadership, or, as he describes it, "the structuring of organizations for growth." He said he plans to complete the doctorate as soon as the church controversy blows over and he has more time.

Baker moved to Howard County eight years ago, just as Covenant Baptist Church was purchasing 123 acres of farmland off Centennial Lane in Ellicott City in hopes of building a church to house its burgeoning congregation.

Covenant Baptist Church, founded in 1982, is no stranger to controversy.

Under its founding pastor, the late Rev. D. Walter Collett, it took an outspoken stand against homosexuality and abortion rights. It became especially well-known for planting tiny pink and blue crosses on its lawn at its former Columbia location at Cedar Lane and Cedar Fern Court to represent the number of abortions in Maryland every year.

The church has always had a strong emphasis on growth.

In its first several years, like many start-ups, it met in a school building. It constructed its first building in 1988 -- the first church building in Columbia -- only to outgrow it in the early 1990s. At that point, it moved its Sunday morning worship services to River Hill High School in Clarksville, which can seat 800 people. It still meets there today.

Church membership took a nose dive when Collett died of cancer. Baker and senior Pastor Danny M. Crow estimate their Southern Baptist church now has about 400 members -- far from their goal of a mega-church that would attract tens of thousands from the Washington/Baltimore metropolitan corridor. But evangelization is a cornerstone of their faith, and they hope to convert as many people as possible. They think a new church building can only help, and they want a big structure to reflect their dreams of growth.

The conflict between Covenant Baptist Church and its neighbors began in 1996, when church officials sought entry into the public sewer and water district, saying they didn't want to build a private septic tank for their planned church and school. Baker told the Howard County Council on Jan. 16, 1996, that the public facilities would save the church about $1.5 million or $1.6 million in building costs.

When the matter went before the Howard County Planning Board on Jan. 3, 1996, board member Joan Lancos anticipated the problems that would arise later.

"I am always very, very careful about any expansion to the planned service area," she said at that Planning Board meeting. She said her main concern was that "it could become a large group of housing in there."

Vincent Guida, the church's attorney, responded at that meeting: "That is not the intention of the church."

Before the Howard County Council on Jan. 16, Baker said the land "will be used for the development of a Christian school, soccer, football fields, those kinds of things." He also told the council that "if development was the issue, we would have probably asked for a rezoning. We don't want a rezoning."

The council and the Planning Board voted to approve the church's request.

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