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Tax Exempt and Growing, Churches Worry Pr. George's

In 1999, Hope Christian Church bought 87 acres near Route 50 and Enterprise Road in Mitchellville for $1.5 million. The goal was to move from their converted warehouse in Lanham to a $40 million complex with a sanctuary, a 350-student school, a vocational-technical center and an assisted-living facility.

From the start, neighbors and county lawmakers fought the plan, said Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., the church's senior pastor. The County Council refused to allow water and sewer lines into the property. At hearings, residents objected to the potential impact of such a large development.

The Rev. Lee Washington opened Reid Temple AME Church in December after a low-key push to build on a large site in Glenn Dale. "Churches here have to operate in stealth mode," Washington says. "You have to go under the radar." (Photos Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

Church Property Value

"It wasn't like we are against a church. I am a Christian, but as a Christian I have to be logical about how things affect the community," said Rich Stelfox, a neighbor who testified against the project. "My biggest issue was traffic."

Stelfox, who is white, wasn't the loudest critic. Most of those who attended the council hearings to oppose the church project were black. One sentiment that emerged was that mega-churches, with their broad regional following, are in the community but not of it.

"What I hear from residents is that they don't feel like these churches are being an asset to the community," said council member David Harrington (D-Cheverly), who represents Mitchellville.

"This is a class issue," Jackson said. "What they don't want, middle-class African Americans, is the lowering of their property values and crime elements in their communities."

Jackson said he believes lawmakers opposed the church's plans for another reason. The land abuts some of the county's most expensive housing, which yields millions in tax revenue.

"That's 95 percent of it," said Jackson, shaking his head.

Today, his vision survives only in a dusty, glass-encased model in a house on the property. Soon, that too will vanish. Hope Christian recently sold the land and is moving to a commercial strip on Route 1 near the Capital Beltway.

Within the church community, there is momentum for a dialogue with lawmakers over the most effective use of land.

Felder, the Howard University professor, said mega-churches need to be sensitive to land use and tax revenue when they build because it "hurts the county in providing vital social services."

More important, he said, churches need to look beyond their parishioners to a "comprehensive concern for life" that will benefit black economic development.

As an example, Felder cited Hampton Mall on Central Avenue in Capitol Heights, once plagued by car thefts and youths drinking and taking drugs.

Last year, the Rev. Anthony G. Maclin and his church bought the mall, changing the name to Kingdom Square. It provided 24-hour security and began holding services in the mall's movie theater.

New businesses have moved in, including a Long John Silver's restaurant and a Family Dollar store. The Bally Total Fitness center stays busy.

Maclin acknowledges that he doesn't have "the kind of money to pull off a National Harbor," but by saving a dying mall, he's trying to create a new paradigm for the mega-churches.

"We're spending dollars in our own community," he said. "We are revitalizing a place that was once dead and struggling."

Research database editor Derek Willis contributed to this report.

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