Storefront churches draw opposition in Highlandtown

Kenneth A. Savage has been preaching for nearly a decade inside a double-wide rowhouse on East Lombard Street in Highlandtown.

The pastor of Holy Truth Temple of Deliverance House of Praise says he's reached out to the corner boys who set up their drug shop on nearby narrow Mount Pleasant Avenue and welcomed the homeless to help them find housing.

Kevin L. Bernhard has been working for years to improve his neighborhood, too. The president of the Highlandtown Community Association has canvassed door-to-door with police to inform residents about crime problems and helped to clean up litter.

But while the church and the community association may share some goals, they've been at odds of late.

Some Highlandtown residents have raised concerns about noise and parking stemming from Savage's church, and recently mounted a zoning challenge that questioned whether Holy Truth had the permits it needed to operate.

The friction between the church and some of those who live around it is not uncommon.

In many of Baltimore's neighborhoods, churches are seen as stabilizing influences that help deliver community services and advocate for area needs. But churches that open in residential neighborhoods or in once-vacant storefronts can change the character of a block and exacerbate parking shortages during services and evening events.

City Councilman James B. Kraft, whose district includes Highlandtown, said churches moving to tight residential streets are "becoming more of an occurrence — we are getting more and more calls."

While he said it is important to respect the right to practice religion, Kraft said there should be a limit to the number of places of worship that can operate within a given area.

In his district, he mentioned several instances where congregations are causing residents headaches, including one on South Conkling Street where there are apartments above the church that holds services lasting into the evening with loud live music.

Kraft said parking is a "consistent problem" in Southeast Baltimore and that whenever there is a request for increased parking, "we look at it very closely," he said.

He also noted that churches don't pay taxes.

Highlandtown isn't the only neighborhood grappling with the conflicting needs of churches and their neighbors.

Along the border of the Wilson Park and Pen Lucy neighborhoods, some residents are concerned about a church that is trying to get a permit for 500 people in the 4300 block of Old York Road, where parking is at a premium.

And last year, a similar battle was fought between residents and a church in West Baltimore before the zoning board.

Councilman Bill Henry said he has been working on a zoning bill that would increase the number of parking spaces for churches. Current code requires one space for four parishioners.

City officials are aware of the tension churches cause in some communities. Last week, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake launched a program called "Awaken Baltimore" to connect congregants with neighborhoods and residents.

Kevin Slayton, the mayor's liaison to the city's faith community, said the initiative is designed to build links between those who travel from outside the neighborhood or city to worship in Baltimore with their religious center's neighbors.

In Highlandtown — a working-class neighborhood near Canton and the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center — churches seem to be sprouting in once-vacant storefronts. Some have only small signs in the windows of what was formerly a bar or small shop. One on South Conkling Street displayed just a photocopy of a prayer schedule taped to the glass.

The purple-painted property that is Holy Truth stands out with flags and a cross outlined in small white Christmas lights. The church settled on the color after a long battle against graffiti; Savage said it symbolizes strength.

Behind the church is a small vacant lot surrounded by a wooden fence, which Savage said church members used for a community yard sale that drew complaints from neighbors, contributing to the zoning challenge.

He was surprised by the fight with the community association.

Such zoning disputes more commonly pit community groups against bars, liquor stores, strip clubs and other establishments that can attract crowds or people who activists think don't fit into the neighborhood.

But Bernhard said Holy Truth had become a similar concern. "It goes against all of the development efforts we are trying to do," he said.

The association filed its zoning complaint earlier this year, questioning whether the church had the right to operate after it received complaints from neighbors. The association lost that battle this month.

The city zoning board determined that while Holy Truth did not have the correct permit, it was eligible for one because the building had been used as a meeting hall since 1943. Services can continue, the board said, but occupancy was limited to 50 people and the church will need written permission from neighboring businesses for 20 off-street parking spaces from the nearby Highlandtown Village Shopping Center, and must adhere to noise regulations.

Savage said he had been taken aback by the zoning complaint, saying neighbors had not complained in previous years. He said relations between the church and some in Highlandtown are good. He said he's received praise from some elderly neighbors who had been scared to walk to nearby Santoni's Super Market, where they had to pass kids hanging on the corners.

"The drug mobility has slowed down 100 percent because of this church," he said.

At a recent night prayer meeting, about 20 members gathered to hear Savage in the narrow room with purple pews and purple carpet.

One faithful member of 10 years, Reginald Toney, who lives nearby on Baltimore Street, credited Savage's church with getting him out of a west-side gang.

"I would have never gotten where I am without him," Toney said. "I don't know if I would be dead or in prison."

Savage said the church is committed to being a good neighbor. "Our intent," he said, "is thoroughly right."

Baltimore Sun reporter Yeganeh June Torbati contributed to this article.

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