In a deal that would create the region's first soccer complex, the Soccer Association of Columbia-Howard County, the state's second-largest club in that growing sport, is near an agreement to buy 52.4 acres on Columbia's northern edge.
The association, which sponsors popular regional tournaments, has reached what both sides call agreement with Covenant Baptist Church to pay as much as $1.5 million for the land and site work necessary to create 10 fields.
Development of such facilities for soccer is increasing nationally.
A 24-field soccer complex that includes a 5,000-seat stadium is about to open in Germantown, in northern Montgomery County. At least three soccer clubs, including the 15,000-member Montgomery Soccer Inc., the state's largest group, will use that complex, the first in Maryland dedicated to the sport.
Currently, the closest complex is one owned by Kirkwood Soccer Club in the Wilmington, Del., area. Other such facilities familiar to SAC-HC travel teams are in Raleigh, N.C., and Virginia Beach, Va.
The 370-member church that is selling the land worships at River Hill High School in Clarksville and hopes to start work on a new sanctuary on the site's northern edge in 2002, said its pastor of 22 months, the Rev. Danny M. Crow.
"It's good for them, and it's good for us. It's a win-win situation," said James Carlan, the president of SAC-HC.
The association expects to have about 6,000 players, ranging from 5-year-olds to adults, competing this fall.
The property, former farmland that the church has owned since 1993, is on the west side of Centennial Lane, roughly opposite some of the fields in county-owned Centennial Park.
"Our church really wants to do community good," said Crow of the project.
He said that he and representatives of SAC-HC have made the tentative plans known privately to neighbors of the site and to congregation members.
"In just the time I've been here, I think this is a good thing. It's obvious that we need land for soccer," Crow said.
A decade in the making
SAC-HC began talking about building a complex a decade ago and has nearly reached agreement three times on other sites. The club's most recent proposal for a seven-field complex at Howard Community College in Columbia collapsed in 1996.
Crow and Carlan both said yesterday that they expect the Centennial Lane agreement to be signed within a matter of days.
"In fact, we're waiting for them," said Crow. SAC-HC has a directors meeting scheduled for tonight.
The complex would include a central restroom and concession building, a maintenance garage, three small ponds and parking for 475 to 500 vehicles. The largest of three parking lots would be central to the fields and would be shared by the new church.
One road off Centennial Lane would serve the fields and church. Restrooms and concessions would have public water and sewerage.
Separated from Centennial Lane by a wetland strip and a narrow wooded area, the proposed field area is essentially treeless, Carlan said. Part of the land's northern edge is a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. substation.
As part of the purchase contract, Carlan said, SAC-HC will agree to not start games until 12:30 p.m. - after church services end - on Sundays, which has long been the club's springtime game day. Game days are Saturdays in the fall.
Carlan said that, with its own fields, SAC-HC would be able to play on both days.
Four fields would meet international size standards, measuring 70 yards wide by 120 yards long, wider than all but two of the county's high school stadium surfaces for the sport.
Four more fields would measure 60 by 100 yards, and two would measure 50 by 80 yards for young teams that play with seven instead of the regulation 11 players.
"We expect that all of our players - the rec-level players as well as the travel teams - will be able to play at least some of their games on these fields," Carlan said. "We also know that fields maintained specifically for soccer help the skill levels of our players."
Turf on such fields is typically mowed shorter than on multipurpose fields, which allows for crisper, more direct passing.
Plans do not call for a stadium field. SAC-HC wants some fields to have lighting, but Carlan said the lights wouldn't be on stanchions.
Lighting is still being evaluated, he said, noting that innovations in playing-field illumination can make it more palatable to neighbors. A number of fields in nearby Centennial Park are lighted.
Some funding in hand
For six years, SAC-HC has set aside money from membership fees for its complex. Carlan said the total is "between $600,000 and $700,000."
The club has other financial resources, mainly profits from tournaments it runs on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends and at two other points in the year, and expects to mortgage some of the purchase, he said.
But Carlan also said members can expect an increase in fees to help with maintenance.
"We've deliberately kept our fees lower than normal with knowledge that this day would eventually come," he said.