Despite opposition from the Mount Vernon community, local preservationists and City Council member Eric Costello, the Baltimore Planning Commission voted 5 to 2 today to approve a request to subdivide the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church from an adjoining church office building.
Joseph Novoseller, a New Jersey developer who has contracted to buy the property, has been vague about his plans for the 148-year-old church, a cultural and architectural anchor for the Mount Vernon Place historic district.
But he has made clear that he wants to sell an 1855 townhouse next door, and he needed the land subdivision in order to do so.
The commission received more than 50 letters about the application – most of them in opposition.
Sean Davis, chair of the commission, said he understood the community’s concerns about the future of the church building and appreciates the arguments presented, but the developer’s application met the city’s legal requirements for approval.
“There is no question that the future development of the church is. . . critical,” Davis said, “but that’s not what is before us. What’s before us is the subdivision.”
Before the vote, the planning department staff had recommended approval.
“I’ve heard extensively from the community” – Eric Costello.
Costello asked the commission to deny Novoseller’s application.
Noting that no elected official in Baltimore is more “pro-economic development” than he is, Costello said, “I haven’t heard from anyone” from the development team, but got plenty of messages in opposition from residents.
“I’ve heard extensively from the community,” he noted.
Novoseller’s attorney, Caroline Hecker, said she didn’t contact Costello because she didn’t think he would be interested. “Never in a million years would it have occurred to me that he would want to be involved in a minor subdivision.
“He knows I have all the respect in the world for him,” Hecker continued, “and I do apologize for not bringing him into this earlier to introduce him to our client and explain our plans for the proposed redevelopment of the church.”
Board member Marcia Collins, who represents the Department of Public Works, made the motion to approve the subdivision.
At the urging of other commission members, she later amended her motion, saying she hoped Novoseller would work more closely with community leaders.
Others voting to approve of the subdivision were: Davis; Marianne Navarro, representing Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young; and two citizens representatives – Victor Clark Jr. and Talib Horne.
Eric Stephenson and City Council member Edward Reisinger voted no, Thomas Prevas recused himself, and Robin Allen was absent.
Baltimore Heritage and the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy had taken the position that they would not support any subdivision request unless Novoseller presented a definite development plan for the church.
They and other preservationists are concerned that selling off the Asbury House will limit the ability of any owner to repurpose the church for new uses. They noted that most of the church’s parking lot will be sold off as part of the Asbury parcel, leaving the church with one off-street parking space.
Novoseller told the panel he intends to allow a day care center to remain for now in the church basement and let the congregation continue meeting in the building. He also promised to take steps to repair the church’s leaking roof.
Earlier this year, the Lakewood, N.J., businessman negotiated a contract to purchase the church, reportedly for about $1 million, from the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church.
At least three dozen people listened to today’s meeting, which was conducted virtually over Webex, but few spoke out.
At least two Mount Vernon residents complained after the meeting that they wanted to address the commission and tried to, but were not given the opportunity.
One said he partly blames himself because he couldn’t figure out how to unmute himself or get the moderator’s attention. He also expressed puzzlement that so few residents spoke up given the extent of opposition to the subdivision request voiced in the community.
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