Funeral home fits Highland, architect says

Its style, smaller scope championed at hearing

`Conditional use' zoning sought

Residents fear big edifice, more traffic at crossroads

January 14, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The large Colonial funeral home a developer hopes to add to the small country crossroads of Highland would not look out of place because common details of the town's buildings were included, its architect maintained last night.

Roughly 60 residents turned out at the same Howard County hearing to offer silent testimony to the contrary. For many of them, the debate over the funeral home is a struggle to save the essence of their community.

In the second night of meetings on the contentious case, the developer's team tried to convince the county's hearing examiner that the approximately 12,000-square-foot plan deserves "conditional use" permission to allow the funeral home to operate on land zoned for residential use.

The crossroads, where Route 108 and Highland Road meet, is dotted by a dozen or so small businesses, from an antiques shop to a saddlery. Souder Builders, the developer, would like to construct the funeral home on part of 4.1-acre parcel at the northwest corner of the intersection. Donaldson Funeral Home, based in Laurel, is interested in expanding there.

The rest of the land would be developed later, possibly with offices, shops and a pub, said Souder Builders' attorney, David A. Carney.

He said the developer modified the funeral home request last month and is now proposing a 120-seat chapel instead of one with 168 seats. Parking has been increased to 45 spaces, he said.

Architect Jeff Henneman said last night that Highland has a "wonderful, eclectic mix" of buildings and he took cues from them to design the proposed funeral home, including the steeply pitched roofs and clapboard siding.

"I think it would be a lovely addition to the village," he said. "I firmly believe that the building is compatible with what's there."

Henneman said the scale is "sympathetic" to its surroundings because he split the expansive structure into three sections connected by wings to make it seem smaller.

The residents' attorney, William E. Erskine, was not impressed.

"Is it fair to say it's about three times as large as the normal residential building in Highland?" Erskine asked.

"Yes," agreed Henneman.

Erskine, suggesting that the funeral home would become the predominant structure in Highland, joked that the town would have to be renamed "Donaldsonville."

Residents opposing the funeral home had yet to put on their case by 8:30 p.m., but expected to begin last night and continue to a Jan. 27 hearing.

The county's Department of Planning and Zoning, which reviewed the original plan that called for 14,640 square feet, called it "contrary to the general character of Highland" and recommended denial.

Residents also say the funeral home would be too large for their small crossroads. They say the proposed building is sprawling compared with the little shops nearby, and they worry about traffic and parking problems.

They contend that a business of that size could spur the sort of transformation that happened in Clarksville, which not long ago was also a rural crossroads. Now it is a major commercial destination, an extension of Columbia's River Hill.

"Just in 10 years, Clarksville has dramatically changed," said Dan O'Leary, acting president of the Greater Highland Crossroads Association, which was formed last year in response to the development proposal.

"If you want this place to look like Clarksville, just ignore this [funeral home]. That's why we have to have these associations and be careful on all fronts," O'Leary said.

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