Citing environmental and health concerns, residents of Govans in Northeast Baltimore are trying to overturn a 2021 zoning decision that would allow a crematorium to be built inside an existing funeral home.
At a circuit court hearing Tuesday morning, a lawyer representing members of the community asked the Baltimore City Circuit Court to review the Baltimore City Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals’ approval last year of the crematorium that would be housed inside Vaughn Greene Funeral Services.
The petition asks the circuit court to consider whether crematoriums are incinerators — which are prohibited citywide — whether the zoning board found evidence that the crematorium wouldn’t create adverse effects, and, given the health concerns of residents, evidence allowing bodies to be cremated at the proposed location from outside Govans, among others. It is unclear when the circuit court will make a decision.
Vaughn Greene needed approval from the zoning board before seeking approval from the Maryland Department of Environment, which has final say. The day after this story was published online Vaughn Greene sent out a statement saying, “Vaughn Greene Funeral Services has tremendous respect for the community we serve. Our request to operate a crematory directly results from increased market demand. The appropriate parties have all of the relevant information, and we look forward to their decision.”
M&G Property Management Two owns the land that Vaughn Green sits on, said Karen DeCamp, who has lived in Govans for 23 years and is concerned about the crematorium.
The funeral home is where the wake for Freddie Gray, who died from injuries suffered in police custody in 2015, was held.
DeCamp said the zoning board didn’t do its due diligence on the potentially harmful effects the crematorium could have.
“The judges got everything in front of them. I think our attorney [Andrea LeWinter] made a really good argument about the duty that our local zoning board has to not just rubber stamp approvals,” DeCamp said.
LeWinter is representing the community pro bono, according to DeCamp.
DeCamp served as president of the York Road Partnership, which represents more than 20 neighborhoods, for seven years.
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“There are hundreds of homes right around a proposed human crematorium, and those blocks right [around] the crematorium, there are documented ... elevated levels of asthma, lung disease, cardiac disease and diabetes,” DeCamp said. “All of those diseases are made worse by pollution. That was never examined by the zoning board.”
Thomas Webb, chief solicitor for Baltimore City, said the zoning board didn’t think the community’s expert was credible. The job of the zoning board is to listen to both parties’ arguments, and in that case, Vaughn Greene’s argument was more convincing, Webb said.
“That area [Govans] was actually similar to many other areas in the city in terms of health outcomes,” Webb said.
The Baltimore Sun previously reported that “cremating the human body — which releases pollutants, such as particulates — involves a large amount of fuel, according to California-based nonprofit Green Burial Council” resulting in “millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year.”
Roughly 24,000, or 20%, of city children have an asthma diagnosis, according to a 2020 report by the Abell Foundation, more than double the national rate of 9%.
“We can’t have our mayor, our delegates, our City Council talk about environmental justice and not require that the agencies and the boards of Baltimore City do their job,” DeCamp said.
In May 2021, City Councilman Mark Conway, whose District 4 includes Govans, told The Sun he shared the same concerns as the community of Govans community. Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.