Mark Batterson, the lead pastor of National Community Church, is a New York Times best-selling author whose religious self-help books have legions of fans. His popular Washington area Christian ministry draws thousands of worshipers to services held in movie theaters.
But in Glen Echo, Md., Batterson is hardly revered, not after deciding to sell to a developer the heart of Vassar Circle — about a half-acre with an old church in the middle of town — property that Batterson’s ministry got free.
The situation is unusual for a couple of reasons: In the Washington area, Batterson’s real estate deals are generally praised while contributing to his ministry’s rapid growth. And in Glen Echo, population 255, heated not-in-my-back-yard disputes don’t happen much anymore.
The 110-year-old town, 15 minutes north of the District, occupies prized land along the Potomac River and is mostly built-up. Bungalows, Craftsmans and modestly renovated residences fill the town, not spec homes, ostentatious mansions or trendy “new old” houses. The four large houses the developer has proposed for Vassar Circle are an affront to those Glen Echoans who tend to resist change when it comes to the town. (The mayor has served for more than 20 years and a Town Council member for 45.)
“It’s just devastating. We moved here because we were not impressed with the suburbs. It’s not McMansionville, like what you see in the rest of Montgomery County,” said Anna White, 29, whose blue two-story house on Vassar Circle will face the new homes. “The kids like to play T-ball and Frisbee on the circle. It’s the central park. Kids skateboard and bike there and play with the gravel and make weird gravel castles.”
Glen Echoans are especially angry because the Vassar Circle property was once owned by the town and, until now, has served as a public asset, not a private moneymaker. In the 1930s, the town sold Vassar Circle property to the local fire department for $1,500. In the 1950s, the fire department sold its Vassar Circle property to Glen Echo Baptist Church for an estimated $15,000, according to the church’s former deacon. The town gave the church the rest.
But in January 2012, Glen Echo Baptist Church, faced with a dwindling membership and looking for a successor, gave the property to National Community Church (NCC). Shortly after the deal, Batterson was so excited that he declared in a sermon that the gift was “worth well in excess of a million dollars” and wrote on his Web site: “Humbled beyond words. Praying that we steward it in a way that honors God, honors the legacy of Glen Echo Baptist Church, and blesses the town of Glen Echo.”
Now, two years later, Batterson’s ministry is scheduled this week to close on the property’s sale to Aaron Hirsch, a District-based developer, for a price that neither man would disclose. It was originally listed for $1.749 million; property records show that it was assessed at $761,100 in 2013.
Batterson disputed that his church is flipping the real estate for a quick profit. First, he said, his organization wanted to launch a ministry in Glen Echo and spent tens of thousands of dollars rehabilitating the Glen Echo Baptist Church building. Batterson said he bailed out only after realizing that a total renovation would cost upward of $2 million, a prohibitive burden given the building’s limited seating and lack of parking.
“There may be a few people who would think, ‘Why don’t they give the land back to Glen Echo?’ But that’s not why Glen Echo Baptist Church gave it to us. That wouldn’t have been in the spirit of the gift,” Batterson said. The Baptist congregation, he said, wanted the land gift to benefit his ministry, which can use the money to help fund charitable work, such as missions abroad. Batterson’s ministry spent $1.8 million in 2013 on such missions.
“Certainly the Lord has blessed us financially,” he said, “and we take the stewardship of that incredibly seriously.”
Tom Meeks, a former Glen Echo Baptist Church deacon, said he supports Batterson’s decision to sell the Vassar Circle property to a developer. “It’s not NCC’s property. It’s God’s property,” Meeks said. “And NCC’s income is God’s income.”
Hirsch, the developer, said he wants to build four, four-bedroom “farmhouse”-style homes on lots of 6,000 square feet each. The houses will be about 21 / 2 stories tall — about a half-story higher than several nearby residences. Some neighbors worry the new dwellings will tower over them, block their views and clog traffic on the narrow Vassar Circle roadway.
“People care a lot about the town, as do we,” said Hirsch, who, with his wife and three children, is moving into a house down the street from Vassar Circle.
But Hirsch added that he needs to build slightly larger houses to make the deal worth the investment. He insisted that he’s not going to construct mansions that are grossly out of proportion with the neighborhood. “We’re really glad we got [the property] so no one can build houses like that on that land,” he said.
Hirsch doesn’t need approval from the town to subdivide the property. But he does need a green light from the five-member Montgomery County Planning Board, and the town’s opposition would raise the bar. The Planning Board can reject his proposal if it believes the proposed four lots differ in character from the neighbors’ or pose safety issues. But the board cannot turn down the project simply because it finds the houses off-putting or wants to appease opponents of the development.
Hirsch said that once the deal closes, he expects to file an application with the county in about four months.
Glen Echoans can be especially protective of the town’s character because they came so close to losing it. In the 1960s, the Clara Barton Parkway swallowed up large swaths of sloping land between Glen Echo and the Potomac. “Residents felt that they had been barred from one of the most alluring aspects of Glen Echo,” writes longtime resident Carlotta Anderson in her book, “Glen Echo: The Remarkable Saga of a Very Small Town.”
About the same time, Glen Echo and other communities beat back a proposed “Palisades Interstate Route” — a divided four-lane highway — that would have destroyed the town if it had been built, according to Anderson’s book.
And in 2000, Glen Echo, led by longtime Mayor Debbie Beers and the Town Council, won a years-long battle that enabled it to buy an old trolley line’s right of way that acts as a buffer to nearby roadway traffic.
In Glen Echo’s latest battle, Beers said the Town Council will examine parking and safety issues related to Hirsch’s project. “We’ve fought to maintain a certain character here, and that doesn’t include McMansions close together,” she said. “But this is not something I will oppose because I don’t like McMansions. There has to be a legal basis.”
If the town formally opposes the project, a Planning Board vote of at least 4 to 1 will be needed to approve it.
Neighbors hope that Hirsch decides to leave room for green space and to build fewer than four houses. Two would be nice, said James McGunnigle, a former State Department employee who moved to Vassar Circle after nine tours abroad.
So far, McGunnigle’s diplomatic talks with Hirsch have been fruitless. “I’ve met with him several times. He’s a nice guy, but this is what he does for a living,” he said. “Our interests don’t happen to be the same.”
Anna White, who lives on Vassar Circle, said she’s more upset with Batterson and National Community Church. “I totally trusted them,” she said.
Even after the sale closes this week, Batterson and his growing empire may want to keep up good relations with Glen Echoans. “We’re considering launching another location near Glen Echo,” he said. “Our 2020 vision is 20 locations.”