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Baltimore judge reverses city planning commission decision to divide Mount Vernon Place Church from adjoining parish house

A Baltimore City Circuit Court judge has reversed a decision by the city’s planning commission to allow a developer to subdivide the historic Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church from its adjoining parish house.

Judge Jeannie J. Hong sided late last week with an attorney representing the Mount Vernon Belvedere Improvement Association, which appealed the Baltimore Planning Commission’s October subdivision vote. She remanded the case to the planning commission and instructed it to outline its reasoning for the decision, which she said was not done in the approval letter, according to a report by Baltimore Fishbowl. After that, she said the courts could review it again.

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The Asbury House and the church currently sit on one lot, and a New Jersey-based developer, Joseph Novoseller, of the Aria Legacy Group, hopes to split it into two so that each could be sold separately, according to plans outlined by the commission.

A Baltimore City Circuit Court judge has blocked a city decision allowing the subdivision of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church and Asbury House, the building next door to it on right, for a New Jersey developer. November 18, 2020
A Baltimore City Circuit Court judge has blocked a city decision allowing the subdivision of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church and Asbury House, the building next door to it on right, for a New Jersey developer. November 18, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

But city preservationists and the Mount Vernon community opposed the plans, arguing that carving the parish house away from the church would decrease the property’s value and make the restoration process less realistic within the strict limits applied to historic buildings.

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“The fact they are combined is an asset that the city should not lightly give up, because the fact they are combined keeps many more options open for the church than separating it,” said Steve Ziger, a principal at the Baltimore-based Ziger/Snead architecture firm who specializes in historic preservation projects, in November.

Ziger testified against the subdivision ruling at the planning commission hearing in October.

Chris Ryer, director of Baltimore’s Department of Planning, said in November that the planning commission did not have the jurisdiction to deny the subdivision request on legal grounds. He said the city should view the Mount Vernon Place church as a single wave of a greater “tsunami” of historic religious structures that will have to adapt to stay viable.

And Novoseller, in a November interview, said the community’s reaction to the subdivision may have been shortsighted and dismissive of his career in adaptive reuse. He said he had plans to restore the church and “come up with a use that everyone would be happy with.”

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Representatives for Novoseller or the Mount Vernon Belvedere Improvement Association did not respond to requests for comment.

Adam Levine, chief solicitor of litigation at the Baltimore City Department of Law, said the city is reviewing Judge Hong’s opinion and is deciding how best to proceed.

“The City is unaware whether any other party plans to appeal,” Levine said in an email.

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