A decision on whether the historic Candle Light Inn property in Catonsville can be turned into a funeral home will be made in the next seven to 10 days, Administrative Law Judge John Beverungen said at a special hearing Monday, Nov. 18 at the Jefferson Building in Towson.
Craig Witzke, owner of Witzke Properties and Craig Witzke Funeral Care, of Catonsville, has proposed converting the restaurant — which is still open — into a funeral home with three viewing rooms, an office for making funeral arrangements, a lounge and restrooms on the first floor. Upstairs space would remain private, serving as an office. Additional space would be allocated for the preparation of bodies, said Lawrence Schmidt, a Towson attorney who spoke on Witzke's behalf.
About 16 people, including local residents and merchants, came to support the project. Five others raised questions and concerns about the proposal, mourning the possible loss of the old restaurant and worrying about the aesthetics and traffic at an already busy intersection.
The 6.35-acre site at the corner of Frederick Road and North Rolling Road is in a residential zoning class permitting 5.5 units per acre with a narrow strip zoned for two units of residential density. A restaurant has been operated on the property since before area zoning laws were enacted in the 1940s. Funeral homes are permitted in residential zones as a special exception.
Schmidt called the property "a perfect candidate for a funeral home," noting its large size, location at a traffic signal, access to Frederick Road and North Rolling Road from two entrances and more parking than required by law.
The only possible impediments to the project are setbacks – the required distance between buildings and the property line – as required by law. Schmidt spoke in detail about the need for residential transition areas (RTAs), which protect dissimilar housing types with deeper setbacks and buffers. He questioned whether an RTA was needed since the law doesn't mention funeral homes.
Variances were requested, "out of an abundance of caution," Schmidt said, because the existing building sits 22 feet from its property line, less than the required 50 feet. Nearby neighbors said they were not concerned by the proximity of the building.
Schmidt said Witzke wants to run the funeral home out of the building now housing the restaurant. The original structure dates to the mid-1800s.
"It would be a crime to tear down this building," he said. "It is an iconic building in Catonsville to say the least."
Following his presentation, several Catonsville residents expressed worries about traffic, loss of the charming old house, and the aesthetics of the project.
Berchie Manley, a Catonsville resident and former Baltimore County Councilmember, asked Witzke if he would consider having the building placed on Baltimore County's Landmarks List.
"A great deal of emotion is attached to that building," she said.
Noting that his own wedding reception was held there, Witzke replied that he was open to the idea. Manley and other residents also cited traffic congestion at the intersection.
"During the peak rush hours the lines can get quite long," she said.
Witzke noted that if another restaurateur had bought the property, which has been on the market for more than a year, operating hours could potentially expand until 2 a.m. He expects traffic to be gone by 9 p.m.
A funeral procession, even with 50 to 60 cars, Witzke added, would clear the parking lot "in less than a minute."
Both Bryan Lally, a Catonsville resident whose family has owned the house next door since 1935, and Christine Langer, who recently bought a house on Frederick Road, had concerns about the aesthetics of Witzke's proposal for a 16-foot tall metal garage, which would be connected to the main building by a breezeway.
"There is no such thing as a pretty metal building," Langer said, urging Witzke to consider a better-looking alternative.
Witzke said he intends to build an attractive garage and to improve the property's appearance overall.
"I want something that looks nice," he said.
He pointed to funeral homes he has seen in many small towns. "Funeral homes are typically one of the best looking houses in the town," he said.
When Lally aired his concerns about adding a crematory, Wizke said he had no plans to add one.
Beverengun also noted that a public hearing would be necessary before one could be built.
Two residents spoke in favor of the funeral home proposal, including Lally.
"I think it is a beautiful site for a funeral home," he said.
Wayne and Louise Olson, who have lived on Oak Lodge Road for 53 years, however, expressed their sorrow at losing the Candle Light Inn.
"It adds much to the charm of Catonsville," Wayne Olson said, asking that Witzke's request be denied.
Beverengun noted that he received only two letters about the project, both expressing support.
Witzke operates his funeral business in offices on Newburg Avenue.
The Lombardini family has owned and operated the Candle Light Inn since 1979.
An attempt to reach the family on Monday was unsuccessful.