Residents along York Road come together to oppose crematorium
Vaughn Greene Funeral Services, meanwhile, has garnered support from area pastors. The company argues that there is a need for a another minority-owned crematorium in Baltimore.
Above: The zoning board has been hearing testimony about Vaughn Greene’s request to put a crematorium in an existing building at its York Road location. (Fern Shen)
A plan to put a crematorium in North Baltimore’s Govans neighborhood has generated intense opposition from residents, who fear serious health impacts from a facility with a proposed 40-foot tall smokestack to be located 200 feet from the nearest homes.
The owners of Vaughn Greene Funeral Services, meanwhile, call these concerns overblown and say that, once the crematorium is in place, passersby wouldn’t even know it’s there.
One of their experts likened the emissions from the cremator to those of her Ford F-150 truck.
Another feature of the debate: Both sides say they are speaking on behalf of Black neighborhoods.
Race was first raised by Vaughn C. Greene, who wants to add equipment to his funeral home at 4905 York Road, so that human remains can be cremated there rather than at an outside facility.
“I’m simply trying to provide services that people need and people are requesting of me,” Greene said at a meeting of the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals earlier this month.
“It is only in a community of color – only in Baltimore City, the largest city in the state – that minority citizens are deprived of the services that they need,” Greene, who is African American, added, questioning the motivations of the opposition he has encountered.
He said there is “only one minority-owned crematory” in the city at present and that he wants to serve the 21212 zip code that “has pockets which are economically challenged.”
Longtime residents and community leaders, however, rejected that argument during a public hearing last week.
“Does that mean because we wear Nikes, a Nike plant should be opened here? Of course not,” said Jacquelyn Whitfield Williams, who grew up in the area and whose parents and brother still live in the Richnor Springs neighborhood they moved to in 1958.
“We want our neighborhood to be a place where children can play in backyards safely and folks can sit on their porches and not worry about cremains particulates,” she continued. “Why should our zip code carry the burden of poor air quality?”
Support from Churches
Their testimony comes as the months-long controversy approaches a key juncture as the zoning board considers a request by Greene’s M & G Property Management TWO LLC to modify an existing conditional-use approval.
More than 70 letters of opposition were sent to the zoning board by families and individuals. More than 180 people have signed a petition against the crematorium plan.
Fourth District Councilman Mark Conway as well as Delegate Maggie McIntosh and Senator Mary Washington have submitted letters in opposition to the board. (Delegates Curt Anderson and Regina T. Boyce, also representing the 43rd District, have not done so.)
Greene, meanwhile, has letters from the leaders of 11 churches from across the city praising his “character, integrity and professionalism” that, he says, reflect widespread support for his project since they represent the congregations of 20,000 people.
“In spite of the reservations of a few, the community will be blessed [and] an African-American business will continue to be competitive” – Rev. Harold A. Carter Jr.
If the crematorium plan moves forward “in spite of the reservations of a few, the community will be blessed, an African-American business will continue to be competitive and survive going forward, and science will prove that any perceived harm will be negligible,” Harold A. Carter Jr., pastor of New Shiloh Baptist Church, wrote.
“Vaughn Greene established his funeral services out of an abundance of compassion for underserved people, especially in the African American community,” wrote Bishop Donté Hickman, pastor of the Southern Baptist Church. “It is imperative that they not be impeded from developing a crematory.”
Becky Witt, a Community Law Center attorney advising the opposition, noted that the churches endorsing the project are located, for the most part, far from the proposed crematorium, as were the people testifying on behalf of it to the zoning board.
“For all the talk about supporting a Baltimore City business, we’ve only heard from Mr. Greene, who lives in Howard County, and lawyers and consultants who also live outside the city,” Witt said at the hearing.
Businessman and Pastor
Originally from Baltimore, Greene now resides in Ellicott City, as does the company’s director of business development, William G. Miller.
Greene recounted to the zoning board how he was introduced to mortuary science as a youth and went on to start his own business 25 years ago. A pastor as well as a business owner, Greene told the panel his customers “call me to minister to them in their season of need.”
The company has three funeral homes in the city and one in Randallstown and, through Bachelor Brothers Funeral Services, operates two others in and near Philadelphia.
Documents on file with the state indicate Greene has given generously to political candidates over the years, contributing at least $15,000 to former Mayor Catherine Pugh, $4,500 to Baltimore County Council Chairman Julian Jones, and $1,500 to another ex-mayor, Sheila Dixon.
The wake for Freddie Gray, whose 2015 death in policy custody triggered protests and rioting, was held at his York Road location.
Asked why the city shouldn’t restrict crematoria to non-residential areas, as the city of Gaithersburg recently did, Greene said:
“I wouldn’t want someone to transfer my family member to a cold, isolated industrial park to have those services provided.”
The crematorium issue has unified the majority-white neighborhoods on the west side of York Road and the primarily Black neighborhoods to the east.
Among those taking a position against the crematorium are the York Road Partnership, Govans Ecumenical Development Corporation, Loyola University, Tunbridge Public Charter School, and community associations representing Kimberleigh Road, Rossiter Avenue, Woodbourne McCabe, Winston-Govans, Radnor Winston, Guilford, Homeland, Bellona Gittings, Lake Walker, and Rosebank Bellona Brackenridge.
“Both sides of York Road have devoted thousands of hours and attended countless community meetings to making our neighborhoods safer, healthier and more equitable and attractive to future home buyers,” testified Annick Barker, who lives half a block from Vaughn Greene and has a daughter with asthma.
Christopher Forrest, president of the Winston-Govans Neighborhood Improvement Association President, said the overwhelming sentiment among local residents is opposition to the crematorium, even among those who heard company representatives speak about it over the summer.
Forrest noted that his family used Vaughn Greene last year when his brother died and was cremated. He agreed with others who said the company does good work and has been a community asset.
“What is in dispute is misleading [people] and implying that the immediate community and Vaughn Green’s neighbors requested the incinerator next to their homes, which is what you’re hearing – and that’s not the case,” Forrest said.
“I personally reside in a community on the east side of York Road, the same side as Vaughn Greene,” he added.
“You’re using your ties with the church and the Black community to guilt and bully us into having a crematorium at this location,” said one resident.
Resident Cindy Camp, who also lives east of the proposed facility, was even more pointed.
“Mr. Greene, I believe that you’re using your ties with the church and the Black community to guilt and bully us into having a crematorium at this location.”
According to the permit application to the Maryland Department of the Environment (which is still pending), the proposed crematorium would emit on a daily basis 2.28 pounds of sulfur dioxide, 3.74 pounds of nitrogen oxides, 4.9 pounds of particulate matter and 3.09 pounds of carbon monoxide (CO).
Pollution from these sources is associated with asthma, COPD and other chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer, heart disease and stroke.
Vaporized mercury, due to the incineration of dental fillings, is also a potential health concern.
Testifying for Vaughn Greene, Carla Kinslow, director of toxicology and food safety for Rimkus Consulting Group, said the incinerator’s emissions fall within the state’s acceptable standards.
“These hot air emissions are going to be released from that bin stack from a location that’s above the rooftops and as soon as it’s emitted its going to be going up in the air,” Kinslow said. “It’s going to be mixed with the air and diluted even further.”
No Medical Waste
During his testimony, Greene said the crematorium would not accept medical waste or human remains from other funeral homes. He also said dental amalgams or other material containing mercury or other toxics would be removed.
A bell tower, with decorative shutters, is planned to mask the crematorium’s flue, the company’s architect told the board.
But the environmental health consultant testifying for the opposition argued that, while the crematorium’s fine particulate emissions are within acceptable levels, the MDE uses federal standards from 2012 that are under review by the EPA because they “may not be protective.”
Fine particulates are among the worst kinds of emission from incinerators, said Lisa Polyak, an environmental engineer with the Army Public Health Center at Aberdeen.
“A crematorium is an incinerator. . . really just a specialized incinerator,” she testified. “Incinerators are one of the most highly regulated sources of emissions because of their potential to emit. . . pollutants that are extremely toxic in very small amounts.”
Using data from the company’s application to the state, Polyak calculated that while the maximum concentration of ground level particulates would be found at just over 100 feet from the stack, 50-70% of the maximum would still be present at 200 feet where the closest houses are located.
Already, people living in the York Road corridor are disproportionately exposed to multiple sources of air pollution, Polyak said.
Within a two-block radius, she counted two MTA bus stops, two fast-food restaurants with drive-through windows and two gas stations.
She cited data estimating that 19,734 vehicles pass the area every day, producing over 50,000 pounds of harmful air pollutants.
Witt expanded on the theme of racial disparity, noting that Black neighborhoods in Baltimore already suffer the health effects of decades of racism.
She displayed a map of the area near Vaughn Greene that showed markedly higher rates of asthma in the predominantly Black neighborhoods on the east side of York Road.
Another map illustrated how asthma rates are markedly higher in East and West Baltimore, majority African-American neighborhoods that Lawrence Brown has called “The Black Butterfly” in his book documenting the impact of racism on public health in Baltimore.
Maps for heart disease and COPD show the same pattern of differences among majority Black and white neighborhoods.
“We’re not saying these maps came into being because of crematoria,” Witt stressed.
“There’s poor air quality inside many homes due to mold and absentee landlords. There’s poor air quality in our old and underfunded schools. There’s a truck route running down York Road,” she said.
“There’s no truck route running down Charles Street or Roland Avenue – somebody made those choices,” she said, referring to what Brown labeled “The White L.”
“We’re not asking you to fix the whole map today,” she continued. “We’re asking you to make one choice. . . which will prevent the map in our opinion from getting worse than it already is. . . . This is not an appropriate place for an incinerator of human remains.”
Ambiguity in the Code
Objecting “strenuously” to the use of the term “incinerator,” Neil Lanzi, attorney for Vaughn Greene, criticized opponents at the hearing, calling their word choice “demeaning and insulting.”
But the opponents said their choice of terminology reflects a specific argument they are making against the proposal.
Vaughn Greene has cited incineration factors used by medical waste incinerators in its application to the state, Witt observed.
“There is nothing different between a medical waste incinerator and a crematorium. It’s just a matter of marketing.”
The zoning code prohibits incinerators in all zoning districts in the city. But another provision of the code allows crematoria as a conditional use, or even by right, in certain districts as part of a funeral home use.
Conflicts in the code, Witt said, are required to be resolved by choosing the more restrictive provision.
Lanzi will have an opportunity to respond to that argument during the funeral home’s rebuttal, now scheduled before the zoning board on September 16.