Property fight pits historic church against former pastor

March 28, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun Reporter

One of the oldest African-American Baptist churches in the city is at war with its well-known former pastor and his supporters, a divisive battle playing out in Baltimore Circuit Court amid accusations of fraud, tax negligence and personal enrichment through church property.

The roots of the back-and-forth legal wrangling date to the mid-1990s, when Union Baptist Church knocked down nine rowhouses to build a child care center on Druid Hill Avenue.

But the property taxes weren't paid on the land on which one of the buildings stood, and the city sold it at a tax sale. The church's pastor, the Rev. Vernon N. Dobson, challenged the foreclosure and worked out a deal with the new owners: He would give them $12,000 in exchange for the deed.

However, Dobson's group says the investors' deed lists the property at 1201 Druid Hill Ave. as a single rowhouse when it should represent much of a city block -- the land on which the child care center now stands, according to court records. He sued the city and the owners.

Angry leaders of the 155-year-old church have since ousted Dobson, their longtime spiritual leader and a noted advocate for civil rights and the poor, blaming him for losing the building and for other pastoral leadership issues. They also have filed to intervene in Dobson's lawsuit, accusing him and two others of trying to reclaim the property for personal gain.

"Our goal is to get the building back," said Union Baptist's attorney Joshua M. Ambush. "The church regrets that it had to come to this. ... Ultimately we believe that it's the obligation of the trustees to protect the interests of the church."

Joseph C. Howard Jr., a member of Union Baptist who is named in the church's lawsuit, called it "totally frivolous."

"There is no evidence ... that we have benefited in any way. Our task has always been to serve the community," he said.

"We're really trying to reclaim the properties for the ministries -- the coffeehouse, laundromat, the child care center," he said.

State Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat who is chairwoman of the church's board of trustees, did not return calls for comment. Dobson declined to be interviewed on the advice of his attorney, Karin M. Kendrick. She also would not comment.

`Source of conflict'

"Reverend Dobson's efforts in this proceeding continue to be a source of conflict within the Church," the church states in one of its recent legal filings.

The property in question, 1201 Druid Hill Ave., was a rowhouse originally purchased in 1981 and converted to a community coffeehouse.

To make the coffeehouse project eligible for city grants, the church formed a development corporation that year, eventually known as Union Baptist Development Corp., and deeded the property in that firm's name. The corporation's charter was forfeited in 1996, however, for failing to file property tax returns. Dobson's group contends in its filings that the city incorrectly characterized the properties as residential when they should have been tax-exempt.

By that time, 1201 Druid Hill and eight other rowhouses on the same block as the church had been demolished to construct a Head Start child care center at Druid Hill Avenue and Dolphin Street. Court records state that the city's land records office consolidated the nine rowhouse lots, and the larger building became known as 1201 Druid Hill Ave.

According to court filings, Dobson said he did not receive bills for taxes owed on the original 1201 Druid Hill Ave. rowhouse property.

Christopher Lyons and Randolph Allen, investors from Queens, N.Y., had purchased it for $6,000 at a tax sale in 2002; they began foreclosure proceedings in 2004 and won their case the next year.

Both the city and the two investors agreed to settle the foreclosure dispute with Dobson -- the city paid the two New York men $6,000 and Dobson paid them $12,000. In exchange, the investors agreed to give Dobson the deed to the original rowhouse property on Druid Hill Avenue.

But Dobson would not accept the deed, saying it did not match the tax sale certificate. The investors thought they were buying a single rowhouse, which is what is reflected on the deed. But the certificate describes the property as nearly one-third of an acre, about half a city block.

Kendrick, Dobson's attorney, argues in court papers that her client should receive the larger property as reflected on the tax certificate -- a point disputed by the New York investors.

"We just want to reinstate the status quo," said Eileen A. Carpenter, attorney for the investors. "We can't give back more than we were given."

Later, in March 2005, Dobson revived the defunct development corporation's charter.

Lawsuit filed

In April last year, the corporation sued the investors and the city, asking the court to deem the tax sale null and void.

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