Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Church renovation stokes tensions in neighborhood

Demolition finally begins on homes slated for parking lot; pastor says paperwork pushed back construction

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Vickie and Harold Orgel say the boarded-up and vacant houses across the street from their home have been eyesores. While the couple is encouraged that the Church of the Atonement, which owns the houses, has begun demolition this week, Harold Orgel says delays in doing so have caused tension in the neighborhood.
The demolition of four vacant houses near the corner of Amherst Avenue and Plyers Mill Road that are owned by the neighboring Church of the Atonement finally began this week as part of a renovation project that has been delayed for years.

The homes, which have been vacant since last fall, have been compared to a ‘‘war zone” by residents who have complained about the properties’ deterioration. Since 2001, the church has planned a multimillion-dollar project that will include a new parking lot using the land from the homes.

But due to permitting delays and a lack of needed approvals from county agencies, the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Curtis Young, said the project has taken three years longer than he expected.

‘‘It’s a long, long process,” Young said, adding that the original renovation plans had begun in 1997. ‘‘I had not anticipated what would be involved in going through the county and government bureaucracies.”

A vacant house on Plyers Mill Road and another directly on the corner of Plyers Mill and Amherst were demolished Monday and Tuesday, respectively, and the church administration expects the other two to come down in the coming days.

Harold Orgel, who has lived on the corner of Amherst and Plyers Mill for 29 years with his wife, Vickie, said he is encouraged the houses are coming down, but the negative impact on the neighborhood remains.

‘‘It’s easy to look at it for 10 to 15 minutes, but this has been going on for months now,” he said. ‘‘Now, it’s about getting it done and doing it tastefully.”

The demolition comes six months after the county’s Department of Permitting Services had approved it, but the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission delayed the project because of an inadequate forest conservation plan.

As part of the forest conservation plan, a stormwater management pipe is being dug from the construction site at Plyers Mill and Amherst through residents’ yards along Plyers Mill. Because the church had combined the four properties into a minor subdivision, it did not need to go before the Planning Board to approve the renovation plans and was not subject to a public hearing, said Amy Lindsey, an environmental planner for Park and Planning.

The church’s renovation supervisor, John Blondell, expects the entire project to be finished in November.

The plans, including sediment control and on-site stormwater management, had to be approved through permitting services, which contributed to the initial delays, Lindsey said. The drain was the reason for the latest delay, she added.

In the meantime, residents say the houses have been a blight in the neighborhood and lowered property values. There have not been tenants in the houses since fall of 2007.

Many of the windows are either boarded up or broken. There are holes in the roofs and deteriorating shingles. As of last week, the weeds on the properties were nearly waist-high.

Young acknowledged the poor condition of the properties but said most of the deterioration is a result of the county Department of Environmental Protection telling the church not to cut the weeds in order to prevent soil erosion. The church also volunteered use of the properties to the county fire department, Young said.

Earlier this year, more than 100 firefighters were able to use three of the houses for training, but no actual fires were set, said Pete Piringer, a spokesman for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue.

Residents are still miffed about using the properties for parking. ‘‘It changes the character of the neighborhood from residential to basically a parking lot,” said Stan Mantel, who has a sign in the front of his property on Plyers Mill that reads ‘‘We oppose Atonement Church’s demolition of our lawn.”

Amherst Avenue resident Kevin Curtis said he and his wife would like to move but was not confident he could sell the house easily, given the housing market and the renovation.

‘‘We think we can’t do anything to sell our house until the church finishes what they are doing,” said Curtis, who has lived on Amherst for 18 years but calls his family ‘‘new on the block” of longtime residents. ‘‘We feel like we are stuck.”

Curtis also said he is concerned the landscaping and beautification promised by the church will not take place.

However, Young said the church plans to add significant green space, set the lot back from the street and limit the impact of the construction.

Originally, parking for the church was available directly on Georgia Avenue or across Georgia at a medical building, Young said. Between 1996 and 1998, that parking was eliminated and the congregation had to park on side streets. Young said the dangers of older or handicapped members walking through a residential neighborhood without sidewalks prompted the need for additional parking. The church has about 350 active members, he said.

Orgel said he had no problem with church members parking on the street during its two Sunday services.

‘‘They come here one day a week,” he said. ‘‘[The construction] affects us every day.” Orgel said he will lose a tree on his property as a result of the digging for the stormwater pipe.

When plans for the houses were announced, residents protested and sent letters to the congregation but were dissatisfied with the response, which some said began a lengthy disconnect between the neighborhood and the church.

‘‘They never effectively communicated with the neighborhood or let us feel we were listened to or part of the process,” Curtis said. ‘‘The last year as it started happening, there is absolutely no communication from the church to the neighborhood about the timetable, what it’s going to look like, etc.”

Young said it has been difficult to inform the neighborhood because many of the uncertainties surrounding the project have left the church administration itself in the dark. Once the situation became clearer in May, Young said church members went around the neighborhood to speak with residents about the changes.

‘‘I don’t think we have crept in at night and done anything under anyone’s nose without them knowing it,” he said.