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With Some Churches, Clubs Failing, Commissioners Talk Vacancy Solutions

A new ordinance might provide a solution for anticipated church and club vacancies.

With a growing number of religious organizations and clubs in Lower Merion facing dwindling memberships and financial concerns, commissioners and township staff are looking for ways to ward off what could become a serious vacancy epidemic.

On Monday night, commissioners discussed a recently proposed ordinance amendment that would permit—and establish standards for—the conversion of religious, club or lodge properties to multi-family dwellings, namely, apartments, condos or townhouses.

While no action was taken on the proposed ordinance amendment on Monday night, what follows is an explanation of the ordinance, along with commissioners' reactions and suggestions.

Discussion on the ordinance will continue at a Building and Planning Committee meeting on July 25. At that meeting, commissioners may vote to advertise a public hearing and recommend the ordinance amendment for approval in September.

Why It Matters

The ordinance amendment was drafted in response to what Building and Planning Director Bob Duncan has called an "alarming trend." In a May 23 memorandum, Duncan said that within several months, the township was approached “by as many as six different religious uses and/or clubs expressing interest in converting some or all of their existing buildings to residential uses.”

is one organization whose property developers had hoped to convert to multi-family housing.

Contract buyer Wally Smerconish , though current zoning only permits single family detached dwellings or religious/club uses on the site.  After the Zoning Hearing Board , Smerconish —a move that has upset many who would like to see the building preserved.

Odd Fellows Hall in Gladwyne is another troubled building. The site has gone through three interested developers in the past few years, . As at First Baptist, the use variance request for the would-be developers of Odd Fellows Hall was denied by the Zoning Hearing Board.

In both cases, the Zoning Hearing Board ruled that the applicants had not adequately demonstrated that the site could not be developed without zoning relief.

While it might be too late for First Baptist, the proposed ordinance amendment would make condo and apartment conversions for properties like First Baptist and Odd Fellows Hall permissible under the current zoning—an option that could make preservation of such structures more likely.

Details of the Ordinance Amendment

The conversion ordinance is similar to another section of township code that allows houses to be converted to multi-family dwellings. The ordinance under review applies similar standards to a church or club, with a few adjustments, Duncan said.

The most recently proposed version of the ordinance is available in PDF form here.

A few main points from the current version of the ordinance, which may change:

  • This ordinance amendment would apply only to buildings that are being used for religious or club purposes at the time the ordinance is passed—meaning that a developer can’t come into a neighborhood, build a church, and immediately convert it to an apartment building, Duncan said.
  • External alterations would be primarily limited to those required for safety or code compliance.
  • All changes to the exterior of the building would need to be reviewed by the Historical Commission and approved by the Board of Commissioners, even for properties not included on the Historic Resource Inventory.
  • Outdoor parking spaces, dumpsters and mechanical equipment must be screened by a wall, fence or landscaping.
  • One of the units would need to be owner-occupied, or the property would need to be managed by an on-site manager or Homeowner's Association.
  • Duncan said in order for any of the properties to be converted to student housing, they would also need to comply with the township regulations for student housing already in existence, which, for example, include additional parking requirements.

Duncan presented a list of roughly 80 township properties that under the proposed ordinance, would qualify for multi-family use.

The list, compiled from the county land use database, is not exhaustive; a few organizations not on the list, such as the Levering Mill House, would also qualify, Duncan said.

Questions, Suggestions, Concerns

Commissioners made several suggestions for the ordinance.

Historical Commission Concerns

As the ordinance is currently drafted, any religious institution or club seeking exterior changes as it converts to multi-family dwellings would need approval from the Historical Commission, even if the property is not on the Lower Merion Historic Resource Inventory.

The purpose of the requirement is to provide another measure of township approval for a developer wishing to redevelop a property.

Board of Commissioners President Liz Rogan disagreed not with the prospect of an additional approval, but with placing non-historical buildings before the Historical Commission. She suggested that instead, perhaps all properties seeking to convert to multi-family use should be placed on the Historic Resource Inventory.

But, noted Commissioner Jane Dellheim, referring to First Baptist, “What’s historic to us is not necessarily indicated by the congregation or by the person who wants to buy [the property]—as we’re seeing in Ardmore right now."

The Problem of Cemeteries

When cemeteries are no longer attached to churches, what becomes of them in terms of zoning, when such properties are listed as accessory uses for churches? Plus, who is responsible for their care?

Commissioner Jenny Brown noted specifically the Gladwyne United Methodist Church cemetery's state of disrepair. She suggested that perhaps the ordinance should only apply to buildings without cemeteries, preferring to approach those properties as a separate problem.

Radius Restrictions

Commissioners also broached the possibility of a separation requirement, requiring that properties to be converted be a certain distance apart. Such a requirement would prevent a situation where three churches on one block converted to apartments, thereby changing the character of the neighborhood.

A 'One Size Fits All' Approach

“This is a large solution for a relatively small problem,” Brown said of the ordinance.

Brown questioned the “one size fits all” approach, and Commissioner Brian Gordon agreed, calling it a narrow problem with a broad answer. Gordon also suggested that perhaps the ordinance could be carved to include only religious institutions.

Moving Forward

Duncan said he would speak with the township solicitor regarding about six questions and suggestions presented by the board, and return with another ordinance draft at the next Building and Planning Committee meeting on July 25.

At that time, the committee may also recommend to the board the advertisement of a public hearing and adoption of the ordinance amendment on Sept. 19.

“The whole point of [this ordinance is that] there are some churches or clubs we want to see saved," Rogan said. "... This is a national issue—this is not just a Lower Merion issue."

michael July 12, 2012 at 11:14 AM
didn't they already screw this one up?
Bob Guzzardi July 12, 2012 at 12:10 PM
What does this declining membership of community oriented clubs and churches tell us? Several Catholic schools in Lower Merion. One would think that the most affluent municipality would be able to support the organizations. Perhaps not every one in Lower Merion is wealthy.
Josh July 23, 2012 at 01:45 PM
This town can't even build a partial sidewalk to the garden for the blind off Haverford/remIngton where families and school walkers are nearly killed by speeding cars daily... The cost is a few hundred bucks per block of sidewalk and only about five houses would need to build blocks to connect path to the existing one that ends. Why? Because 'everyone would want a sidewalk'? No. ADA comPliant? NO. Who is in charge of this accident waiting to happen? Well, who??

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