Anger is tenor of meeting
Aug. 15, 2001
Eric Kelderman
Staff Writer

Church leaders, Lincoln Park residents discuss expansion plans

Leaders of Mount Calvary Baptist Church and representatives of an architectural firm were showered with angry remarks from Lincoln Park residents protesting the church's proposed expansion plans, which were detailed at a Saturday morning meeting.

The church's expansion of its North Horners Lane and Lincoln Avenue site could quadruple the 11,200 square feet of the building, adding an 868-seat auditorium and a 600-seat multipurpose room, according to an architect's summary.

The church also has purchased some 14 properties in Lincoln Park for its expansion, which would include two off-site parking lots adding about 121 parking spaces around nearby homes.

Many Lincoln Park and East Rockville residents have vigorously opposed the church since learning of the plans earlier this year. The size of the proposed building will destroy the character of the community, residents say, and add unwanted traffic.

In addition, residents have complained bitterly that Mount Calvary has refused to communicate with them and concealed its plans in order to avoid scrutiny.

Saturday's meeting, called by Mount Calvary officials, was limited to about 90 minutes, and included a presentation by architects and a moderated question-and-answer session.

Church leaders presented their case that programming is driving the need for a bigger building. The historically black church operates a number of social programs from its properties, including a day care, a woman's shelter and various religious fellowships.

But residents have said the community does not benefit from the programs and the controversy appears to have deeply estranged the church and residents. Saturday's meeting seemed to do little to bring the sides closer together.

"The saddest thing I've heard is that we have a community that has lost trust in its church," said East Rockville Citizen's Association President Phyllis Mercuccio on Saturday morning.

East Rockville, which lies to the south of Lincoln Park, has joined in numerous efforts to oppose the church's expansion efforts.

"You (church members) live in other places ... that you're protective of. These people are feeling protective," Mercuccio said, summing up the sentiments of many.

Mercuccio's comments point to the fact that the vast majority of Mount Calvary's congregation comes from outside Lincoln Park and the incorporated limits of Rockville, a fact that rankles many Lincoln Park residents.

Only 10 percent live in the same ZIP code as the church, according to the architect's feasibility study, and slightly greater numbers live in the Aspen Hill/Layhill area to the east. The largest concentration of Mount Calvary's congregants comes from the 20874 ZIP code west of Darnestown, according to the feasibility study.

Loss of trust

The loss of trust could be related to community complaints that Mount Calvary has done little to reach out to the neighborhood since the original plans were released in December 2000.

"Why has this presentation taken so long [to occur]?" said Lincoln Park Civic Association President Bess Corbin, referring to Saturday's meeting.

The church held a meeting with the civic association in February, which was poorly attended, said the church's pastor, the Rev. Leon Grant, who lives in the Norbeck Manor community of Derwood.

A new sanctuary has been part of the church's plans since an education wing was added in 1987, he said. When that portion of the building was added there was no public outreach, Grant said, so "why would I assume I needed to go talk to people now."

"The majority of those who oppose [this plan] would say there's been a breakdown in the communication process," said Joseph Bradley of East Rockville on Saturday. "You've made statements that you've made an effort, but that effort has failed."

City administrators and elected officials also have admonished the church to approach the community since May, at least.

Another part of the community's mistrust could be related to the church's purchase of more than a dozen properties in the surrounding neighborhood. The church has bought a majority of those properties in the past five years, and leaders admitted on Saturday that they were not entirely forthcoming with sellers about their intents.

Mount Calvary Trustee Samuel P. Williamson of Germantown said the church could not reveal its plans to sellers because it would not have been able to purchase the properties at a competitive price.

Change in plans

The church has made some effort at responding to other citizen concerns through the design of the proposed building, according to Isham Baker of the architectural firm Baker Cooper and Associates.

Several changes had been made to the plans submitted to the city last December, Baker noted, including an auditorium with 176 fewer seats than the 1,044 originally proposed, and moving the auditorium to the north side of the structure, according to the plans.

Instead, the multipurpose room would be on the south side of the building, and two houses that would have been torn down along Lincoln Avenue will remain as rental properties owned by the church.

Another Lincoln Avenue property also will be saved from the wrecking ball, according to the church's plans. That house, at 326 Lincoln Ave., will be relocated to make room for a parking lot, Baker said, but no new lot has yet been chosen for the house.

"No home currently being occupied will be destroyed," Baker said during his presentation.

The battle wages on

Despite widespread opposition, the church appears to be digging in for a long fight.

The church has been in Lincoln Park for nearly 100 years, said church spokesman Herbert L. Tyson of Potomac, and it is not going to go away.

Church leaders are also urging members to trust them.

The church's May newsletter refers to the "Save Our Neighborhood Signs" that have cropped up around Lincoln Park in opposition to the church's expansion.

"It is refreshing to see that some member or members of our Lincoln Park Community have recognized that many issues need to be addressed to make our neighborhood the kind of place we'd all like it to be," according to Kenneth C. Jackson Sr., as written in the newsletter.

"We are convinced that it is in our best interest and the community's to work toward common goals. Furthermore we believe it is God's will that we do so.

"Please know that Mount Calvary is doing all that it can to establish and maintain wholesome neighborhood relationships ...," the newsletter article continues.

Grant echoed the theme of divine inspiration on Saturday, saying the Lord had placed him and the church in Lincoln Park, and they were not considering a move.

Grant's remarks angered City Council candidate Susan Hoffmann, who stood during the meeting to oppose Mount Calvary's plans as inappropriate for the neighborhood.

"For them to think that this community is going to be snowed by someone waving a Bible at them is insincere and disingenuous at best," she said after the Saturday meeting.

And in a heated election season, most of the incumbent and challenging candidates seem uniformly against Mount Calvary's plans. Mayor Rose G. Krasnow attended the meeting, as did mayoral candidate Councilman Robert J. Wright and his opponent, Larry Giammo.

"If you really want to build a bridge to the community you have to acknowledge the adverse effect on the community and recognize that there's major opposition," Giammo said Saturday to church leaders.

The City Council also is considering action to limit Mount Calvary's expansion through one or more of a dozen recommendations made by city staff at an Aug. 6 council meeting.

The staff memo was a response to Lincoln Park residents who requested the council to consider a moratorium on "big-box" institutions, similar to a moratorium the council passed for so-called "big-box" stores last year.

Although the church may have greater legal rights for land use under federal law, city staff proposed a number of measures that would limit Mount Calvary without imposing a moratorium.

Councilman Glennon J. Harrison gave the most vocal opposition to the church's plans at the Aug. 6 council meeting. He appears to have the backing of all but Councilman Robert E. Dorsey, who has recused himself from deliberations on the church because he was, until recently, on its Board of Trustees.

The biggest problem is the off-site parking lots, according to Wright. Wright and the council are considering removing an exception in city codes allowing churches to build off-site parking within 500 feet of the church.

The church had planned for 217 parking spaces, but without the off-site parking the expansion could be severely limited, because churches are required to provide one parking space for every four seats in the main auditorium. With only 96 spaces on the church's main lot, the auditorium could seat just 384 people.

Wright said he hopes the two sides continue the dialogue begun on Saturday, but other council members were less conciliatory to the church's actions.

"It's a disgrace what the church is trying to do to the community," Councilwoman Anne M. Robbins said. "They are systematically trying to destroy the neighborhood ... and build a mini-government."