Church leaders: Montgomery officials sabotaged deal to buy college land

Leaders of the Reid Temple African Methodist Episcopal mega-church say they believe Montgomery County officials unfairly pushed them out of a deal to build a new complex in White Oak on land being sold by the National Labor College.

The college has been trying to sell the 47-acre campus, located on New Hampshire Avenue near the Capital Beltway, for more than a year, with plans to relocate to downtown Silver Spring.

College President Paula E. Peinovich announced in May that she had entered exclusive negotiations with Reid Temple and the Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County, a quasi-public organization that provides affordable housing. Peinovich said at the time that she was excited that “the property would be used by another nonprofit, mission-driven organization.”

Two months later Peinovich acknowledged that the deal had fallen apart, but gave no reason, and Reid Temple is crying foul.

The church, which touts more than 10,000 members at locations in Glenn Dale and on Tech Road in Silver Spring, had planned to add a new location for members as part of a mixed-use development, according to Rev. Loxley O’Connor, the church’s director of business and financial affairs.

O’Connor said the church had a development partner and a financing commitment from a bank. They expected the deal to close at the end of June.

Midway through the month, however, O’Connor said the housing agency withdrew. “We were working through closing the deal when the Housing Opportunities Commission found itself with some unexpected opposition to their working with us on the site,” he said.

HOC Executive Director Stacy L. Spann was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

Reid Temple and the labor college moved ahead without the housing agency, O’Connor said, but about a week before closing, labor college leaders called to inform him that they had elected to cancel the sale and put the property back on the market.

“There were a small group of county officials who were essentially opposed to us being on the site,” O’Connor said. A federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, protects religious groups in land use decisions.

Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), a former dean at the labor college, said a mega-church was not the best use for a property with a long connection to job creation. She acknowledged voicing concern to the labor college’s leadership and commissioners of the housing agency.

“I met with them and I let them know that I think that there are issues about that property becoming a mega-church and that’s not what members of the community saw as their goal or plan for that area,” she said.

She said the deal collapsed, however, because Reid Temple “didn’t have the money they needed to do the deal.”

“My involvement in this is to say, ‘Is this the direction you want to move in? And you may consider X, Y and Z,’” she said. “I cannot as an individual person make anybody do anything.”

County Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) also acknowledged raising concerns about the deal with commissioners from the housing agency.

The agency “is a government operation, and I think it should be focused on the delivery of housing,” she said.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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