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Turn Houses of Worship into Houses? Public Hearing Set on Policy

Lower Merion is considering how to respond to a growing number of historic, non-residential buildings falling out of use.

Residents of Lower Merion will have their say in September on a proposed policy governing how the owners of religious institutions and other non-residential historic structures can repurpose the buildings.

The Board of Commissioners voted 9-2 at Wednesday night's meeting to schedule a Sept. 19 public hearing on the subject, which was . Commissioners made clear there would be several revisions before any ordinance is adopted.

Half a dozen property owners have recently asked the township how and when they can convert all or part of their religious sanctuaries or club buildings, said building and planning director Bob Duncan.

His staff drafted ordinance language (attached to this article) that would give owners of such properties some additional flexibility in the permitting process and in establishing buffers along property lines. However, Duncan and the commissioners had not resolved matters such as how to change parking requirements when, for example, a church becomes an apartment building.

The thorniest issue of the commissioners' debate Wednesday night, though, was how to weigh the custody of cemeteries in such cases.

Duncan told commissioners that applicants would have to demonstrate the financial ability to maintain attached cemeteries in perpetuity.

"How do you calculate it?" asked Commissioner Dan Bernheim. "The costs could be astronomical."

Complicating matters, abandoned cemeteries typically pass into the care of the municipality, Duncan said.

Commissioner Jenny Brown said, "I don’t think the questions have been answered sufficiently to move forward with the cemetery part." She proposed the ordinance make buildings with cemeteries ineligible for the conversion treatment being considered, but a majority of commissioners rejected her amendment.

The board has decided to only consider properties on the township's historic inventory. Property owners can apply to be added to that list.

Said Commissioner Cheryl Gelber, "The whole purpose of this ordinance is to protect those buildings that are historic. I think to expand this to include all clubs and lodges is getting too broad. There's no reason to keep an old building just because it’s an old building."

A for the after a plan to renovate into condominiums .

The Odd Fellows Hall in Gladwyne, which has an adjacent cemetery, also had a rejected recently. Gladwyne resident Brad Moser lobbied the board Wednesday night to keep apartments from being an option, a sentiment Gladwyne Civic Association President Karen Aydt told the board she has heard from many neighbors.

Other would-be developers have walked away from Odd Fellows because they have been unwilling to take on care of the cemetery attached to the property.

Mark Herrmann from United Methodist Church of Bala Cynwyd spoke on behalf of institutions that, like his, are looking to stay functional in part by convert only part of their properties to other uses.

"We're trying to do this to allow the church to survive," Herman said. "When you consider this, please separate in your mind those facilities that are closed and subject to redevelopment and those that are open and trying to stay so."

Brown and Commissioner Phil Rosenzweig voted against scheduling the public hearing, as Rosenzweig called the proposal "nowhere near ready to be adopted." The other nine commissioners in attendance voted in favor; commissioners Lew Gould, Rick Churchill and Steven Lindner were absent for the vote.

Patch editor Danielle Vickery contributed to this report.

Bob Guzzardi July 26, 2012 at 12:09 PM
Churches "going out of business"? Is this a sign of the decline of Lower Merion? Lower Merion's population and economy have not grown, housing prices have declined as the cost of government escalates above the rate of inflation with no increase in quality or quantity of services.
tinjay July 26, 2012 at 02:13 PM
Unfortunately, the decline of places of worship in Lower Merion and our American society at large is just the move away from the very foundation of our beloved country; Jesus and God. Also churches are no longer interested in "loving their neighbors", one of the two basic laws of Christianity. They are only content with the bottom line strategy that translates to financial numbers. If Church boards would focus back on the real essence of Christianity which is to be a place of serving others with love and affection, then needless to say the numbers in the churches would increase and there would be no need to destroy these institutions that really hold the fabric of America together. Enough of addressing everything through the lenses of secularity. The spiritual things will never fit into some board of commissioners meeting. Never.
Amanda Mahnke July 26, 2012 at 02:41 PM
In January, Patch spoke with representatives of some other places of worship in the area regarding closures: http://ardmore.patch.com/articles/with-first-baptist-closing-will-other-area-churches-follow-suit

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