State court sides with Donaldson funeral home in years-long dispute with residents

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Maryland's Court of Appeals has settled a nearly eight-years-long ordeal between a group of Clarksville residents and the owners of Donaldson Funeral Home, who have been working to open a new funeral home and mortuary on Route 108.

The state court sided with Donaldson, stating that the county was right to grant a conditional use to the funeral home. A conditional use grants a property owner an exception to normal zoning regulations.

The state's decision, which was issued on June 22, puts an end to whether the county was right in granting the conditional use to build the funeral home on "Rural Residential-Density Exchange Option" zoning, which is a form of rural land designation. Donaldson first submitted for the conditional use in December 2009.

Jay Donaldson said the new location is set to open soon, likely in August.

A group of Clarksville residents, who called themselves "Clarksville Residents Against Mortuary Defense Fund, Inc.," had petitioned the county's decision, claiming that the funeral home was in violation of state environmental regulations because of development plans to remove 50 feet of forest from a stream buffer on the property. The court ruled against the residents, citing that the site's plan included a 100-foot buffer between the property and the stream.

Residents also claimed that the building of the funeral home was culturally insensitive to area residents of Asian descent, as many of them have a cultural sensitivity to funeral homes. Shun Lu, who lives in the area, testified that she believed living near a funeral home was bad luck, according to court documents.

Others also testified that the property was not compatible with nearby residences from a feng shui perspective, which is a Chinese practice to configure a structure in order to harmonize it with the spiritual forces that inhabit it.

Donaldson's team consulted a feng shui specialist, Jennifer Yocum, who testified that she suggested several features that could be incorporated to improve the funeral home's feng shui, which she said were completed.

The court ruled again with the funeral home, stating that zoning regulations only pertained to physical conditions on the property such as noise, dust and fumes, and that cultural sensitivities did not qualify as such. It also stated that even if cultural sensitivities were a relevant consideration for zoning regulations, the property does not make a negative cultural impact on its neighbors.

Jay Donaldson said he is glad to see the end of the ordeal, and is looking forward to serving the residents of Clarksville.

Lu said she is still upset by the funeral home's construction, particularly the building of a mortuary in a residential area. Lu said she worries about waste water from the mortuary getting into the area's well and septic water system, as well as about the potential destruction of the stream near the Donaldson property, which is protected by the Maryland Department of Environment.

Lu doesn't feel the county took the environmental or cultural issues into consideration when making its decision about the conditional use, a decision that the state has now affirmed.

"We don't want a mortuary to be close to us or close to any other residential community," Lu said. "This is not good planning."

Donaldson Funeral Home is a long-standing establishment in the region, and its Laurel location is one of the oldest businesses in the city, having been founded in 1931. The Clarksville property will be Donaldson's third location.

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