Congregation puts housing plan on hold

Controversy over senior complex has subsided

`Running more smoothly'

Church and school proposed for land off Centennial Lane

January 09, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

When the Rev. Danny M. Crow became senior pastor of Covenant Baptist Church a little more than a year ago, he had no idea he would be caught up in a controversy that would create rifts among him, the community and his right-hand man.

Darrell Baker, the longtime senior associate pastor at the church, fought with neighbors and county officials who were opposed to the church's plan to build 90 housing units for senior citizens and a related complex on its rolling land off Centennial Lane in Ellicott City.

Crow felt the conflict pushed Covenant off its spiritual course, and quietly dismissed Baker in August, he says. Today, the housing plans are on hold, ill feelings in the community have all but subsided and, Crow says, the church is moving in the right direction.

"It's been traumatic," Crow says.

"We weren't happy being embroiled in community controversy. We found ourselves there too much. That's not who we are."

Crow still wants to build a church and a school off Centennial Lane where his approximately 400-member Southern Baptist congregation can worship. The 18-year-old congregation now worships at River Hill High School in Clarksville.

The plan to build the church and school was approved long ago by the county. Although Crow no longer talks about building large tracts of housing on the church's undeveloped property off Centennial Lane, he says he reserves that right for the future. County officials believe that idea is dead.

Crow won't say much about Baker, who he says has moved back to his hometown of Atlanta. Baker could not be reached for comment, and church members would not respond to interview requests.

"He was dismissed here," Crow said. "There was an issue of some management judgments that he had made. We have since had some directional changes within the church."

Some public officials have noted the difference.

Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of Howard County's Department of Planning and Zoning, said he has discussed tentative plans with church officials and believes they plan to build only a church and school on their Centennial Lane property, not housing.

Allan H. Kittleman, a Republican councilman from western Howard, said his office has spoken with church officials and was told the same thing.

"I think maybe things are running more smoothly now," Kittleman said. "I think that the church is trying to work with the county to find out the best way to do what they need to do."

Dispute over housing density

Baker's plans to expand the church alienated some powerful people in the county, including council members, former County Executive Charles I. Ecker and former state Sen. James Clark Jr.

The dispute began in November 1998, when the church submitted its petition to the county to build 90 senior housing units and a related recreational complex on its 52-acre property off Centennial Lane. Neighbors did not want that density of housing on a property surrounded by land in agricultural preservation.

More significant, perhaps, neighbors were upset by the way the church had proceeded with its plan to build housing.

In 1996, the church had applied to become part of the metropolitan sewer and water district to save on building costs for the church and school it planned to build. Some members of the Howard County Planning Board and County Council expressed concern that the church would try to build housing on the property if it gained access to public sewer and water, but church officials, including Baker, said that was not their intent.

"If development was the issue, we would probably have asked for a rezoning," Baker told the Howard County Council on Jan. 16, 1996. "We don't want a rezoning." He said the land would be used for "the development of a Christian school, soccer, football fields, those kinds of things."

When, a few years later, church officials proposed building a major housing complex on the property, neighbors accused Baker of deceiving them. Baker denied doing so. He said the congregation had suffered some losses after the death of its founding pastor and needed to change its focus. He said the church would need to earn $1.8 million from the senior housing to help fund the new church and school it planned to build.

Housing plan withdrawn

Crow, new to the church, stood by Baker at first, but differences between them began to emerge.

Ecker and Clark testified at a planning meeting in April that Baker and other church officials had promised never to build housing on the property. Under pressure, the church withdrew its plans for senior housing in June and promised to work with neighbors to come up with a proposal more to their liking.

Baker wasn't ready to give up entirely. He started talking about building 20 upscale single-family homes on the property. He said that if neighbors continued to fight the church's plans to expand, he planned to push the original proposal for 90 housing units for senior citizens. He also talked about one day building a mega-church on the land, which drew criticism from neighbors.

Better relationship now

Neighbors who did not respond well to Baker's style say their relationship with the church is better now that he is gone.

"He did make some nasty comments, and I'm not sure that his vision was the same as the church's vision, either," said Cindy Feinstein, a committee member for Centennial Citizens for Responsible Development, which opposes housing on the church's property.

Unlike Baker, Crow said he does not plan to build a mega-church in Howard County. From the beginning, his vision for the church has been different from Baker's.

While Baker liked to talk about growth and density rights, Crow likes to talk about "reaching people for Christ," "restoring lives to God's purpose," and the church as a "home, a nurturing center."

These are the kinds of goals Crow is focusing on now.

"Covenant wants to be a good church," he said. "We want to be good for the community and an honor to God. Size is his business. We want to leave those things up to God."

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