Residents who live near the site of a proposed human crematorium in north Baltimore have asked for judicial review of the zoning board’s decision to grant permission for the facility.
“This is going to be an uphill battle. We had to raise money to pay for the transcripts. We had to find a pro-bono lawyer,” said Govans resident Karen DeCamp. “But in the end we had to do this.”
Last October, the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals (BMZA) voted 3-1 to grant Vaughn Greene Funeral Services conditional use permission to install a cremator at its 4905 York Road location.
DeCamp said the opponents believe the BMZA erred and decided they could not live with a crematorium operating next to residential areas – as close as 200 feet to the nearest home.
She was part of an effort across multiple community associations in the York Road corridor to oppose the operation.
A request for review was sent on February 2 to Baltimore City Circuit Court on behalf of the York Road Partnership, Winston-Govans Neighborhood Improvement Association, Radnor-Winston Association and resident Cindy Camp.
Vaughn Greene Funeral Services, reached last week, has not yet provided a response.
As part of its October ruling, the BMZA had asked the company and residents to meet and try to work out a set of conditions they could agree on for the crematorium to operate.
DeCamp said community members were “not impressed” by the three conditions the company ultimately agreed to:
• The crematorium would only accept human remains from funeral homes owned, operated or controlled by Vaughn Greene.
• It would remove all teeth containing mercury amalgams prior to cremation.
• It would comply with all applicable federal, state and local laws.
During hearings that stretched across three days, residents argued that the operation would violate zoning laws and harm the health of people living in an already environmentally-stressed area.
Air emissions from cremation include fine particulate matter, which is associated with asthma and other respiratory disease, as well as mercury, dioxins and other toxic substances.
Witnesses also testified that the crematorium would hurt efforts to uplift the neighborhoods. They presented petitions and over 100 letters of opposition from individuals and area community associations.
The consultant for Vaughn Greene testified that emissions from the facility would 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,” Carla Kinslow, of the Rimkus Consulting Group, said. “It’s going to be mixed with the air and diluted even further.”
Also addressing the board was company president Vaughn Greene, who said the reason he wants to provide cremations directly, rather than use an outside facility, is his desire to meet a community need.
“I’m simply trying to provide services that people need and people are requesting of me,” Greene said, arguing that more crematoria should be located within the city.
“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,” he asserted.
Greene’s attorneys read to the board from some of the letters of praise he had received from 11 churches in the city.
The funeral home did not call any residents from the immediate neighborhood to testify.
Explaining their vote in favor of the request, BMZA members dismissed the residents’ health concerns, saying the emissions of particulates and other substances from the facility fall within Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) guidelines.
The opponents’ expert had noted that federal standards for fine particulates are widely considered to be too permissive and are now under review by the Biden Administration. Board members did not find this persuasive.
“I believe it is speculative. . . to say this is dangerous to the public health,” BMZA Chairman James H. Fields said at the time.
Board members also disagreed with the opponents’ argument that cremation devices are no different from medical waste incinerators, which are currently prohibited under the city zoning code.