Zoning board approves controversial crematorium request
Community groups objected to the York Road crematorium, but a 3-1 majority disputed their contention that it would endanger public health
Above: A resident near Vaughn Greene’s funeral home posts a lawn sign in opposition. (Fern Shen)
Baltimore’s zoning board today gave a funeral home permission to put a crematorium at its York Road facility, despite widespread opposition from area residents who said the facility would endanger public health and drive families away from the neighborhood.
James H. Fields, a business and insurance attorney who chairs the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals, dismissed the health concerns, citing the fact that the emissions of particulates and other substances from the facility fall within Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) guidelines.
The opponents’ expert had said that the federal standards for fine particulates are widely considered to be too permissive and that they are under review by the Environment Protection Agency under the Biden Administration.
“I believe it is speculative. . . to say this is dangerous to the public health,” Fields said. “I don’t know how the board is in a position to second-guess the MDE.”
Fields and fellow members, Frank Bonaventure and Wilbur E. “Bill” Cunningham, voted in favor of the application by Vaughn Greene Funeral Home for a conditional use to put the crematorium in an existing building at its 4905 York Road location.
Voting “no” was board member Sabrina Johnson Turner.
All of the board members rejected the opponents’ argument that a cremator is essentially an incinerator, which is not permitted by zoning in the North Baltimore area.
“Shocked, angry, devastated”
The 3-1 vote stunned Govans resident Karen DeCamp, who has been part of an effort across multiple community associations in the York Road corridor to oppose the crematorium.
“I was shocked, disappointed, angry, devastated,” she told The Brew. “They really passed the buck – they did not look at the larger issues of the public interest.”
DeCamp said a crematorium would undermine years of joint efforts by a diverse group of community leaders to bring new families into the area.
“How many people are going to want to move in? How many people are going to say, ‘Hmm that’s not where I want to live,’” she said. “The BMZA ignored the concerns of thousands of affected people.”
Vaughn Greene, who operates three funeral homes in the city, one in Randallstown and two in Pennsylvania, said the company wants its own crematorium to fill a growing need for the service.
His York Road facility is near a residential area and within 200 feet of the nearest home.
• Residents along York Road come together to oppose crematorium (8/30/21)
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. Two state lawmakers and 4th District Councilman Mark Conway also sent a letter of opposition.
No community member testified on behalf of Vaughn Greene at the hearings held on the application. Instead, Greene submitted letters of support from the leaders of 11 churches praising his character.
No community member testified on behalf of Vaughn Greene. Instead, Greene submitted letters of support from 11 church leaders praising his character.
Community Law Center attorney Becky Witt said the BMZA’s conclusion that, because under the MDE ‘s standards the crematorium emissions are safe it could not act, “is not what the zoning code says.”
Fields did acknowledge during deliberations today that the community had “very legitimate” concerns about the effect of the crematorium on the neighborhood.
To address these, the board said it would ask the community and Vaughn Greene to work out a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that could cover areas such as hours of operation and keeping certain materials out of the cremator such as dental amalgams, which contain toxic mercury.
DeCamp said the opponents will have to meet to decide whether they wish to engage with the MOU suggestion.
“Who’s going to enforce that, really?” DeCamp said. “This was a major punt.”
Hammering out such an agreement, she continued, would mean more hours of volunteer work by residents “to do something the city really should be doing – protecting the health and safety of citizens.”
The majority on the board reached conclusions in stark contrast to those of the residents. with Fields arguing, “There is a demonstrated need – certainly a request – and a need for [cremation] services.
“For that reason, it serves a public interest.”