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Zoning board to vote on crematorium at funeral home in Baltimore’s Govans amid mounting neighborhood opposition

A controversial crematorium proposed for a funeral home on York Road in Baltimore’s Govans neighborhood could take a significant step forward Tuesday with a vote by a city zoning panel.

Vaughn Greene Funeral Home Services’ planned crematorium sparked a grassroots campaign by nearby residents concerned about the potential environmental and public health impacts. As the city’s Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals prepares to vote on the proposal, neighbors say they will be watching the vote closely.

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Karen DeCamp, who lives in Govans, said the zoning board needs to decide whether it wants to let Vaughn Greene cremate bodies so close to homes or put the health and safety of people first.

“I really hope that the [board] does not look at this in a very narrow way to benefit this one business at the expense of hundreds and thousands of residents who live nearby,” DeCamp said.

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The zoning board’s approval is necessary before the Maryland Department of the Environment, which has final say, can decide on Vaughn Greene’s application to install the crematorium within the funeral home, a couple of blocks north of East Cold Spring Lane and across from the Govans post office.

The funeral home has been operating there at 4905 York Road for more two decades and was where the wake for Freddie Gray was held after he died from injuries sustained in police custody in 2015.

A representative for Vaughn Greene wrote in an email that the company “has the highest respect for our neighbors and the communities we serve.”

The funeral home, which also has two locations in West Baltimore and one in Randallstown, declined to comment further.

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Louisa, 5, and her brother Morris Courtney, 4, play with their parents Emily Finton and Marty Courtney outside their Govans home. Finton is concerned about the impact on her children's health if a proposed crematorium at the nearby Vaughn Greene Funeral Home Services is approved.
Louisa, 5, and her brother Morris Courtney, 4, play with their parents Emily Finton and Marty Courtney outside their Govans home. Finton is concerned about the impact on her children's health if a proposed crematorium at the nearby Vaughn Greene Funeral Home Services is approved. (Ulysses Muñoz)

MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said the department requires organizations seeking approval to establish a crematorium to submit evidence of zoning approval for a permit application to proceed and for a permit to potentially be issued. It remains unclear when MDE would rule on the application if the Zoning Board approved Vaughn Greene’s application.

“In order for a crematory to be installed and operated in Maryland, the permit applicant must demonstrate that the concentration of each toxic air pollutants’ emissions, to quote the applicable regulations, ‘will not unreasonably endanger public health,’” Apperson said.

Cremating the human body — which releases pollutants, such as particulates — involves a large amount of fuel, according to California-based nonprofit Green Burial Council, and “results in millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year.

Emily Finton lives about two blocks from the funeral home, in a home on Crowson Avenue in Radnor-Winston, which is part of Govans.

She’s worried about the possible crematorium because both of her children — Louisa, 5, and Morris Courtney, 4 — have asthma, she said. About a month ago, Morris was rushed to the emergency room to get breathing treatments. York Road already is the neighborhood’s commercial strip, meaning the area is busy with traffic and several gas stations, which contribute to air pollution.

“I am concerned. Another thing that’s challenging about a child with asthma in COVID times is that they can’t go to school when they have symptoms,” Finton said. “We may know that it’s asthma, but the school is not necessarily going to recognize that a cough is asthma when it could potentially be COVID. It leads to missing more school days.”

A report by the Abell Foundation released last year noted 24,000, or 20%, of Baltimore children have an asthma diagnosis, which is double the national rate of 9%.

Vaughn Greene Funeral Services wants to build a crematorium inside its location in Govans.
Vaughn Greene Funeral Services wants to build a crematorium inside its location in Govans. (Ulysses Muoz / Baltimore Sun)

The city zoning board will take up the matter at its meeting scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, which can be watched online.

Kathleen Byrne, the board’s acting executive director, wrote in an email that she doesn’t take a stance on applications.

“The law requires that the board will take the facts as presented and apply the relevant law when they make their final decision,” she said. “The applicant has the burden of proving his or her case on any application submitted.”

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