First Baptist Church of Ardmore will not be converted to condos anytime soon, as the Lower Merion Zoning Hearing Board denied the use variances requested by the hopeful developer, Wally Smerconish, in a decision issued last week.
The church at 120 E Athens Ave. in Ardmore, put up for sale because its small congregation cannot support it, has been on the market since last July. Smerconish, a real estate developer from Haverford and the contract buyer of the property, presented to the Zoning Hearing Board in May his plans to convert the 1920's building and its parsonage to five single-family condominiums.
The property is zoned R-4 and only permits single-family detached dwellings under the current code, so Smerconish sought a variance for multi-family use of the church building. Without approval of the variances, the condo project cannot move foward, and at the May 17 Zoning Hearing Board meeting, Smerconish told commissioners that if the use variances he requested were not granted, he would no longer be interested in the property.
The Condo Plan
In his presentation to the Zoning Hearing Board in May, Smerconish and the property's realtor, John Duffy of Duffy Real Estate, maintained that converting the church to multi-family use was one of the few viable options for the property. Selling the church to another religious institution, they said, would be difficult because of First Baptist's lack of off-street parking and the high maintenance costs for the building.
“A Baptist congregation that has been there for 100 years and has probably 15 or 20 families supporting it is a very quiet and very terrific neighbor,” Smerconish told the Zoning Hearing Board on May 17. "...[but] remember that a small congregation cannot support a large church.”
Duffy said his company had initially sought to sell the property to another religious institution, but there has been little interest and it would be hard for a church to thrive at the E Athens Road property, which has only four off-street parking spots.
In order for a use variance to be granted, an applicant must prove "that because of the physical conditions, there is no possibility that the property can be developed in strict conformity with the Zoning ordinance and that a variance is needed to enable reasonable use of the property," the Municipalities Planning Code states in part.
On June 14, the Zoning Hearing Board denied the variances requested by Smerconish, reasoning that Smerconish "failed to meet the heavy burden of proving unnecessary hardship for a use variance."
The board did not see the outlook for the property to be as grim as Duffy and Smerconish had suggested, according to the document. "There are dozens of uses permitted in that district, either by right, or by special exception or conditional use," it maintained.
"... The Board would be usurping the role of the Commissioners if we were to essentially re-write the residential district use regulations to allow the reuse of a church building for multi-family purposes," the decision continued.