Church plan for housing irks citizens; Covenant Baptist seeks to sell land for senior community; 'Doesn't make sense'; Pastor defends adding project to proposed church and school


Some Ellicott City residents are outraged by a church's proposal to build 89 upscale senior housing units on its Centennial Lane property -- alongside a long-planned church and church school.

Covenant Baptist Church, a well-known voice in the community, received a special exception in 1993 from county regulations to build a church with an attached elementary school on its 123 acres of fields and woodlands. Now church officials want to amend that exception to allow units for the elderly, which a developer plans to sell for between $200,000 and $300,000.

But neighbors oppose townhouses or condominiums in their neighborhood. They worry that the construction will be out of place on a parcel that is almost entirely surrounded by farmland -- including more than 400 acres owned by former state Sen. James Clark Jr. and his daughter and son-in-law.

"I don't know that it's an appropriate site for town homes," said Cindy Feinstein, PTA president at Centennial Lane Elementary School. "It doesn't make sense to me that a senior community would want to live right next to a high school," she said, referring to Centennial High School.

But Darrell Baker, associate senior pastor at the church, believes that if the church builds the housing, elderly people will buy it. He says neighbors simply don't want to see development on the land, which is unrealistic.

"Honestly, if you never wanted anything built there, you should have written a check for it," he said last week.

Baker said that the church hopes to make about $1.8 million from selling about 52 acres of its land to developers. The money can be put toward the construction of a new church and school building. The church will neither own nor manage the senior housing.

"The church was not and should not be a developer," Baker said.

Hundreds of acres surrounding the proposed development -- including 67 acres formerly owned by the church and the land owned by Clark and his daughter -- are protected by an agricultural preservation easement, said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the county Department of Planning and Zoning, and cannot be developed.

But Rutter said he has concerns about the plans for the housing for the elderly as they now stand.

"It's townhouses backing to Centennial Lane in an area that doesn't have townhouses," he said. "The buildings are out of scale with what else is in the community."

Neighbors are not convinced by an independent study that says traffic would be "acceptable" even during weekday morning and evening peak hours. The church school, which is designed to accommodate up to 700 children, has no plans for bus service, which means parents would drop off and pick up their children.

'Definitely a problem'

"I feel that there's definitely going to be a problem," said Michael Brazaitis, a nearby homeowner.

"You're putting 89 homes in there for seniors next to the high school, so now you have senior drivers mixing with high school drivers, both of which are high-risk categories, and then you put an elementary school smack in the middle of the two. So this whole thing is a dangerous traffic situation."

Feinstein said the 60 members of her executive PTA board oppose the new development for safety reasons. She said Centennial Lane might have to be widened, and the speed limit raised, to accommodate all the extra traffic.

"Does that seem like an ideal place for your children to go to school?" she said.

The Department of Planning and Zoning received the church's petition for an amendment Nov. 4, and the staff recommended denying the church's request.

"The location and size of the use, the nature and intensity of the operation involved in the use, the size of the site in relation to the use, and the location of the site with respect to the streets giving access to the site are such that the use will not be in harmony with the land uses and policies indicated in the Howard County General Plan for the Rural Conservation District," the staff report said.

Dozens protest

Dozens of neighbors came to protest the development at a planning department meeting Dec. 17, and church officials pulled their petition to revise it.

Church officials also met with citizens Sunday night at Burleigh Manor Middle School. About 40 people attended, and most opposed the project.

At that meeting, Baker said revised plans soon would be submitted to the Department of Planning and Zoning. He hoped to assuage residents' concerns, but the gathering, which lasted more than two hours, became increasingly contentious.

"Their actual motivations are financial, strictly financial," Brazaitis said yesterday after attending Sunday night's meeting. "It's got nothing at all to do with increasing parishioners. I don't believe the church should get into land developments to fund their religious projects. Second, I think if the development was that necessary they should have been forthcoming with the information right from the beginning."

Neighbors accused

But Baker says the church resents any implication that it has not been forthcoming. Last Wednesday, he accused the neighbors of being biased against the elderly and said their protest "smacks of prejudice."

"Where do you get off telling a senior that they can live some places but not live other places?" he said. "That bothers me a little bit," he said.

Neighbors, in turn, take offense at that.

"In today's day and age where more of us 40- and 50-year-old people are taking care of our parents, I think that would be a totally insensitive accusation on his part that we would be totally insensitive to the future of the elderly," said Len Busso, a nearby homeowner who came to Sunday night's meeting.

At that meeting, Baker reminded the citizens that their homes were once on undeveloped land.

"You know what? Progress is going to happen," he said. "Every one of your homes now was once part of a big beautiful farm."

Pub Date: 1/05/99

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