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Neighborhoodsby Fern Shen9:15 pmMay 17, 20230

Judge upholds Zoning Board approval of York Road crematorium

Acknowledging that a crematorium is “functionally a type of incinerator,” the Baltimore Circuit Court nevertheless rules in favor of Vaughn Greene Funeral Services

Above: Residents of both sides of York Road worked together for months to oppose a human crematorium proposed for their neighborhood (Credit: Martin Courtney)

Residents fighting a proposed human crematorium in North Baltimore have lost their bid to have the Circuit Court reverse the city Zoning Board’s approval of the facility.

Neighbors of Vaughn Greene Funeral Services at 4905 York Road, where the crematorium is planned, argued last year that the facility – to be located 200 feet from the closest home – would subject them to fine particulates, heavy metals and other toxic emissions.

Judge Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill concluded they “failed to establish any significant increase in risk to human health from emissions produced during the limited operation of the proposed crematorium.”

The Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals, in its October 2021 decision, “correctly reposed confidence in the fact that the crematorium must be reviewed and permitted” by the Maryland Department of the Environment, Fletcher-Hill said, pointing also to the facility’s location in a C-2 commercial zone.

“It is understandable that residents in proximity to a significant thoroughfare already feel burdened by emissions from passing vehicles,” but they failed to show that “adverse effects will not be ‘above and beyond’  what would be expected from a similar source in any other C-2 district in the City,” Fletcher-Hill wrote in a 38-page ruling filed yesterday.

Representatives of the York Road Partnership, Winston-Govans Neighborhood Improvement Association and Radnor-Winston Association and residents Cindy Camp and Moira Horowitz, petitioners in the case, could not be reached this evening for comment.

Vaughn Greene says his request to install a crematorium at his York Road funeral home is driven by increasing demand for cremations. (vaughncgreene.com)

Vaughn Greene says his request was driven by the increasing demand for cremations. (vaughncgreene.com)

Conflicting Law

In 2021, the funeral home’s proposal prompted an upsurge of community opposition from the neighborhoods on both sides of York Road, spawning lawn signs, petitions with nearly 200 signatures and over 100 letters of opposition. Residents, who said the crematorium would undermine efforts to uplift their diverse neighborhoods, pooled their resources to pay for a lawyer.

Vaughn C. Greene, who operates three funeral homes in the city and one in Randallstown as well as several out of state, said he wanted to install crematory equipment at his York Road branch so that human remains could be cremated there rather than at an outside facility.

Greene, whose experts argued that the facility would not threaten neighborhood health (one likened the emissions to those of her F-150 Ford truck), produced letters of support from churches elsewhere in the city.

• Residents along York Road come together to oppose crematorium (8/30/21)

In rejecting the community’s appeal, Fletcher-Hill also rejected their lawyer’s argument that the board misinterpreted the zoning code when it decided that human crematoria are not incinerators, which are banned within city limits.

Equipment that burns human remains is no different from an incinerator that burns, among other things, medical waste, they contended, arguing the board should have denied the proposal outright for that reason.

Vaughn Greene’s lawyers, meanwhile, argued that such facilities are not incinerators and pointed out that another provision of the zoning code specifically permits crematoria as a conditional use for a funeral home in the district.

“I’m not an incinerator”

Faced with this conflict, Fletcher-Hill conceded the residents’ point – “the court accepts petitioners’ premise that a crematorium functionally is a type of incinerator” – then went on, in a somewhat meandering discussion, to ponder the provisions and definitions of “special medical waste” and “hospital waste” in state law.

“It is not the court’s purpose to parse the precise treatment of human bodies in the MDE regulations,” he finally declared, moving on.

He accepted the assertion that human remains are not the same as medical waste, declaring that the city’s ban on incinerators allows “a type of incinerator with very special features.”

“Our society attaches complex and varied cultural norms to death rituals, including the disposition of human remains,” Fletcher-Hill noted, supporting his point by quoting from Greene himself.

“Incinerators are for trash, garbage, refuse, things that don’t have value, things that people no longer want, things that people don’t want back. I’m not an incinerator,” the funeral director testified.

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