Thursday, November 16, 2006

1875 church to move to make airport approach safer

Made up of about 35 active members, the church has negotiated a deal with the Airport Authority for $460,000 and 2 acres to allow for the construction of a new building. The grant money, however, would leave the church with an estimated $250,000 shortfall for the construction.

Group fights to save church
By Jeremy Borden, , November 16, 2006

Jeff Werner just wanted to visit the bathroom.

Walking briskly out of an Albemarle County Board of Supervisors meeting earlier this month, Werner stumbled into a conversation that, for him, emphasized one of life’s pithy truths: There is such a thing as serendipity.

Blocking Werner’s path to the men’s room was Shirley Chapman, the pastor of a small, historically black church in Earlysville called Pleasant Grove Baptist Church. She not only explained her church’s predicament - that the church sits in an airport safety zone and faces the possibility of demolition - but that a deal the church has negotiated with the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport Authority would leave the church with a worrisome debt.

Werner, a land use officer for the Piedmont Environment Council whose job involves keeping an eye on historic preservation issues, didn’t know what to say about contracts and loans. But when he heard that the church was built in 1875, "my jaw dropped," he said.

In the days that followed, Werner began to rally a group to save the church. His hunch that the Federal Aviation Administration had not followed the appropriate steps when dealing with a historic property proved right. The goal now, he said, is to have the church officially designated as a historic site, which would make saving it easier.

Werner plans to submit interviews, photos and other historic documentation to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. The FAA and the Airport Authority have put the acquisition of the church on hold to see what the department will say.

Werner dealt with a similar situation from 2001 through last year when the Federal Communications Commission wanted a tower put on Peter’s Mountain in northeastern Albemarle County. The site lies in a historic district, and Werner criticized the county’s handling of the situation. The tower was eventually approved and built.

"Learning what I learned during Peter’s Mountain … I realized I couldn’t just stay silent," he said.

The state historic resources department reviewed the church in 1990. It concluded the church shouldn’t have a historic designation because it didn’t score well in categories such as historic materials and fabric; siding, for example, had been replaced.

Raising profile

It isn’t clear what a historic designation might mean for the old building - federal law does not require that the building be preserved - but Werner said elevating the church’s importance would give it a better chance.

Werner last week assembled a group of concerned residents, most of whom have known about the situation but haven’t been sure what to do: Ben Ford, a local archaeologist and a member of Preservation Piedmont, a historical advocacy group that has previously worked to document and preserve the church; Gina Haney, Preservation Piedmont’s president; Sally H. Thomas, of the county Board of Supervisors; and Anita Poletti-Anderson, who teaches architectural history in the University of Virginia’s continuing education program.

The Airport Authority, too, has written in previous letters that it is interested in seeing the church preserved. "This is a wonderful opportunity for this community," Werner said.

Werner wants his group to work with church members, who have been somewhat reticent on the issue. Parishioners have said they would like the building to continue to stand as a testament to what used to be a vibrant black community, but they are also excited about the prospect of a new church.

Made up of about 35 active members, the church has negotiated a deal with the Airport Authority for $460,000 and 2 acres to allow for the construction of a new building. The grant money, however, would leave the church with an estimated $250,000 shortfall for the construction, partly because the new site would need extensive work. The congregation has never faced debt before, said Chapman, the church’s pastor, but has agreed to the deal because members want a larger facility.

She said she’s thrilled the community wants to help save the church and was also surprised that the most vocal activists are white.

"I’ve been getting more calls from the white community than I have from the black community," Chapman said. "Even the white ministers were coming out more than black ministers. A lot of the black community is waking up now."

‘You can change the outcome’

Werner said he would fight just as hard for any church of the period. He has a fascination with the era because his great-great-great-grandfather served in the Pennsylvania infantry during the Civil War.

He said many people assume that the postbellum period is protected. They take for granted that a federal agency couldn’t simply destroy a storied old church that was once the center of a thriving black community.

"People say, ‘[They] can’t tear that down,’" he said. "Well, they can. But you can change the outcome."

For historic Baptist church, change is on the horizon
Building in shadow of airport must be moved or destroyed

By Jeremy Borden, Daily Progress staff writer , October 19, 2006

Irene Allen remembers days as a child when hundreds would gather at the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Earlysville.

Those days are long gone, the 72-year-old said, and the church that she has attended all her life has an uncertain future as the building could be destroyed because of its proximity to the airport.

"It hurts me to see the church go," Allen said. "But nothing can’t be done now."
Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, founded in 1875, is a small, historic black church down Earlysville Road near the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport. The building is within the Federal Aviation Administration’s safety zone and the county has told members for years that the day would come when they would no longer be able to worship there. The airport is also expanding, which will affect 10 property owners. The airport has reached agreements with eight of the owners, said Executive Director Bryan Elliott.

The FAA regulation isn’t a new one, but land acquisition and the details of compliance have taken a long time for it to be enforced, said airport officials. The airport authority has been working with the church since 1996, Elliott said.

"If an aircraft were to have an accident, this zone would be clear of all buildings, gatherings of people and in doing so you minimize potential damage," Elliott said.

"Our agreement with the church leaves it completely in their hands whether they want to relocate their church," he said. "They are opting to build a new building." The airport is also donating two acres for the new church and giving them a negotiated $460,000.

While the church will likely stay put for at least a year, the day when it will either get bulldozed or moved is approaching. Once the deal with the airport is finalized, the church could have about a year to move out.

Though the new church site is close to the current one, it shouldn’t be affected by future airport expansions. Church leaders say estimates for the new building have come in at more than $700,000, and they are concerned about the debt they’ll have to incur in taking out a large loan.

‘No fight’

Shirley Chapman, the church’s pastor, says they won’t fight to stay. The dangers are clear, church members say - above the church’s original lantern, crafted in 1875, a crack runs along the ceiling, caused when a plane skirted too close to the roof.

Ralph Carr, a deacon at the church, also said it was too financially risky to fight it.

"The money we have now is not enough money to build the church," Carr said.

He said the threat of eminent domain made church members back off - if the property had been condemned, they wouldn’t have been able to negotiate the price, and they might have received even less.

A.C. Shelton, the church’s contractor, said he’s trying to build the new place as inexpensively as possible. He originally tried to negotiate with the airport authority to get more than $800,000. The church got about half that.

"They didn’t oblige us," Shelton said. He said site development would cost at least $300,000 of the estimated total, something church members were hoping the airport could pay for. Official site estimates haven’t been done, however, because the deal hasn’t been approved. The county Board of Supervisors may approve the rezoning on Nov. 1, something that has to happen before the deal can move forward.

"They were happy, they were comfortable," Shelton said of church members. "They had no financial burdens at all. They didn’t have any debt, they didn’t want any debt. … Why should they have to assume any financial burden?"

The church, however, is still looking for a way to preserve its memories. Allen’s great-grandfather, a former slave, helped build the place by hand when an old schoolhouse near the church became too small. Generations have come and gone, and some former members are buried behind the church.

County Executive Bob Tucker, who is on the airport authority’s board, said once the authority owns the building, it will have to be moved or bulldozed.

"We hope that doesn’t happen," he said, adding that there is at least one property owner in the area interested in moving the church.

Chapman said she hopes the community will step in and help, but there is little the church can do.

"God is leading [us] in the direction He wants to go."

There are also advantages to a new church building, she said. The church has not been able to expand, but the new church could offer more services and have more space than the one-room building they now have.

Every time they applied for a permit to expand the current church, the county said their land would eventually be bought and so no new construction was allowed, Chapman said.

Hanging on to memories

The church was once thriving and raucous for its twice-monthly Sunday services, having more than 100 members when Allen was a child. The church now has around 35 active members, and though it offers services every week, members have died out and few new people have joined. The active members are all family of those who used to attend the church.

That’s why they want the building preserved. Carr said the church can’t pay for the building to be moved. They hope the community can step in and help.

"Generations of families have been at this church," Carr said. "A lot of members don’t want to leave."

The church was there in the 1950s when the airport was built, said James Thomas, a long-time church member.

Given that, he suggested, it would seem "the airport would be in our way."

Yet, many church members seem to already be moving on. Chapman and Carr said the church’s biggest concern is debt.

And Thomas said that his anger has subsided.

"If we can’t, we can’t," he said of keeping the church.

About 10 members, including Chapman, attended last week’s county Planning Commission meeting when rezoning of the land was recommended and approved.

All of the members entered quietly, waited for the commission’s vote and then left. There was no protest, except by Planning Commission members who lamented the loss of something with so much history.

Commissioner John Cannon and others said they would like to see something done to preserve the building.

The church is "being displaced," he noted, "seemingly by progress."

Contact Jeremy Borden at (434) 978-7263 or

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