It was clear Wednesday night that Lower Merion's Board of Commissioners wasn't nearly ready to decide whether to move forward with a zoning scheme that would ease some restrictions for owners of former churches and historic halls seeking to convert them to housing.
That did not diminish how urgently several residents expressed their opinions at the public hearing—some for and some against, the divide corresponding in most cases to the neighborhoods they live in.
Neighbors of the First Baptist Church of Ardmore, whose owner has obtained a demolition permit, asked township officials to provide incentive for a different path.
"Our position fundamentally is, do what you need to do to preserve this structure," said Jesse Roche, a member of the Ardwood Civic Association.
Added Jean Wolf, who lives across the street from the church, "We're very anxious and hopeful that this will go through to the present owner. I hope that the Gladwyne properties will also be able to be configured appropriately."
But near Odd Fellows Hall and the Gladwyne Methodist Church on Righters Mill Road, where the property owner has proposed creating apartments, residents are wary of their neighborhood changing.
"I'm concerned about the density and I'm concerned about the traffic, which is already sometimes just horrendous," said resident Edward Sozanski.
Several people highlighted the narrowness of Righters Mill Road, combined with the parking and traffic byproducts of Gladwyne Elementary School.
"What may work in Ardmore ... is not going to work in Gladwyne at all," said Karen Aydt of the Gladwyne Civic Association.
Caution came from other parts ot the township, too. Hank Wilson of the Bryn Mawr Civic Association said, "The zoning change has the potential to drastically affect the quality of life in these neighborhoods," and Leslie Greenberg from Merion Civic Association pronounced the ordinance "not ready for prime time."
In some cases, zoning code does not expressly prevent turning a former sanctuary into apartments, but property owners still see too little financial sense in realizing their visions under the regulations in place. Half a dozen church owners have approached the township this year to ask for help moving forward with use-changes of some kind, Building and Planning director Bob Duncan said.
Commissioners, like residents, were divided in their opinions.
Brian McGuire expressed his support of renovations being sought at multiple Bala Cynwyd church buildings in his Ward 13.
Meanwhile, Ward 2's Jenny Brown warned her colleagues not to miss the big picture: "This has come about because of just a small handful of properties, and yet, its impact would be on (about) 100 properties. This needs a whole lot more work."
Among the suggested components of the zoning scheme were:
- lowering the minimum lot size where it would be allowed
- allowing buildings to expand more (or, opponents said, not at all) in proportion to their original footprints
- listing any such building on the township's historic inventory to better oversee its alterations
- requiring on-site property managers
- reducing the requirements for landscaping buffers
Fred Fromhold, who is helping spearhead the Odd Fellows plan, said some of the suggestions would actually make it more difficult, not less, to convert abandoned buildings: "I don't think that (property owners) should be penalized for converting back to residential."
The ordinance will be readvertised for another public hearing in October, officials said.
Editor's note: Check back Friday for more Board of Commissioners coverage, including debate over a possible rate increase for trash and recycling collection.