Just when it seemed Jay Donaldson had fought through the major obstacles blocking him from building a funeral home off Route 108 in Clarksville, a new groundswell of opposition has surfaced in the long-running Donaldson Funeral Home zoning case.
Donaldson, who already operates funeral homes in Laurel and Odenton, has spent the past two years trying to get zoning approval to build a funeral home on slightly more than three acres of land between St. Louis Catholic Church and Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church.
After the hearing examiner rejected his original petition in 2010, Donaldson made several changes to his plan. As the case began before the Board of Appeals last week, Donaldson's team resolved their final point of disagreement with St. Louis and the church dropped its opposition.
But now, a group of Clarksville residents, concerned about the funeral home operations exacerbating traffic congestion on Route 108 and having a harmful environmental impact on the area, is organizing opposition to the proposal.
Donaldson's attorney Sang Oh said the "new faces" surprised him.
"We've done so much on the project to revise it and to meet every concern raised by the hearing examiner," he said.
The opposition — some new, some old — comes from residents of Clarksville neighborhoods near the site: Clarksville Overlook, the Preserve at Clarksville, Windy Knolls and Clark's Glen.
"I'm not aware of anybody in the area who is in support," said Mike Faulkender, president of the Clarksville Overlook Homeowners Association.
Faulkender said his community, which has about 35 homes within a half-mile of the proposed funeral home site, had previously coordinated its opposition with the church's attorney, William Erskine. He said many of the residents felt "blind-sided" when Erskine and the church dropped their opposition Feb. 28.
Donaldson's original plan was to build a 25,390-square-foot funeral home with 66 parking spaces. St. Louis objected to the size of the funeral home, lack of parking and lack of an adequate buffering between the two properties, among other concerns. The hearing examiner agreed that Donaldson's plan would have adverse effects on neighboring properties and rejected the petition in November 2010.
Last year Donaldson modified his plans for the funeral home, reducing its size to 17,049 square feet, increasing the number of parking spaces to 100 and enhancing the landscape buffering, among other changes.
The changes were almost enough to appease St. Louis. The only outstanding issue the church had going in to the Board of Appeals hearing, Erskine said, was that the 150-foot deceleration lane Donaldson was proposing was not long enough for vehicles to be able to safely slow down and enter the funeral home site.
Erskine said the church wanted the deceleration lane to be expanded to about 250 feet so it would connect with the existing acceleration lane St. Louis has next to its exit.
After initially balking at the change, Donaldson agreed to it, at which point, Erskine said, the church felt the Donaldson team "did everything that was within their control.
"When a developer goes through that effort (to address concerns), it's hard not to respond," Erskine said. "It's in no way intended to detract from the legitimate concerns of the other neighbors."
After the church dropped its opposition, the other Clarksville neighbors only had two days before the next hearing March 1 to organize and hire an attorney.
Though they found one just hours before the hearing, Faulkender said the attorney did not feel she could get up to speed in time to represent them that evening. The neighbors requested the Board of Appeals grant a continuance of the hearing so they could have more time to prepare, but the board denied the request in a 3-2 vote because they felt further delay would be unfair to Donaldson.
Without an attorney, the neighbors took turns individually cross examining Donaldson's architect and engineer.
Andy Sun, who lives directly west of the proposed funeral home site in the new Preserve at Clarksville community, said the March 1 hearing — which drew more than 100 people, both proponents and opponents — turned into "a circus-like proceeding."
Residents in the Preserve at Clarksville Community, which is still being developed but currently has about a dozen occupied homes, did not know about the Donaldson proposal until last month when they found fliers in their mailboxes from other concerned Clarksville residents.
Wesley Johnson, who moved to the Preserve in September, said he would not have bought his home if he had not known about Donaldson's proposal.
"I don't think it's an acceptable location for a funeral home," he said.
Sun agreed: "It should not be sitting smack down in the middle of a rural residential area, particularly not right next to a school with hundreds of kids." (St. Louis operates a private school.)
Faulkender said the home will add to traffic problems on Route 108.
"Anybody who traverses highway 108 on a regular basis is going to be greatly impacted by this," Faulkender said. "Can you imagine a funeral procession getting on highway 108 say at 4 or 5 o'clock in the afternoon?"
Residents are also concerned about potential environmental effects that would stem from the use of use of formaldehyde and other chemicals during the embalming process.
"Formaldehyde is now designated as a known cancer carcinogen by the federal government," Sun said.
The Board of Appeals case will continue Thursday, March 8 at 6:30 p.m. in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.