Sanctuary-Conversion Policy Unanimously Approved By BOC

Owners of unused religious buildings in Lower Merion now may find it easier to renovate with apartments.

Lower Merion's Board of Commissioners unanimously decided Wednesday night to approve new guidelines to help owners of disused religious, club and lodge buildings more easily renovate them into multi-family housing.

It remains to be seen how quickly owners of such buildings can and will take advantage with development proposals. The BOC—led by board President Liz Rogan, a Democrat, and Commissioner Phil Rosenzweig, a Republican—began concocting an ordinance last April after half a dozen such property owners had contacted township officials for zoning relief, including at Ardmore First Baptist Church and Oddfellows Hall in Gladwyne.

The ordinance serves to lessen the red tape and lower some zoning hurdles for the owners of often historic buildings that are difficult to sell if they can't be adapted for another use, officials said.

Building and Planning Director Bob Duncan laid out a few of the ordinance's main tenets. The entire building must be converted to housing, though density is limited. Renovations would be subject to local historical-preservation rules. Cemeteries would have to be split off into their own properties, and owners would need to establish cemetery companies and lot-care funds in perpetuity.

A few commissioners worried about impacts. Commissioners Jenny Brown and Brian Gordon wanted to prevent two or more such building conversions within 500 feet of each other, potentially changing the character and density of a neighborhood to a significant degree.

Commissioner George Manos said the ordinance did too little to advance the historic-preservation end of the bill and said it was trying to accomplish too many different goals.

Others, however, lauded the prospect of older buildings finding new uses. Commissioner Brian McGuire called the ordinance "urgently needed" in his Bala Cynwyd ward that includes several older churches. Commissioner Scott Zelov hailed "an important step forward."

Keep up with Patch going forward as we follow up on the impact of this vote.


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