Imagine hundreds of mourners streaming to a large, new funeral home only to find less than three dozen parking spaces. That scenario is possible under Howard zoning laws, and two County Council members say it is time for a change.
Howard's zoning regulations require 10 spaces per visitation room, plus one space per employee, but like food stores, churches and retail outlets, funeral homes are getting larger.
"Things have changed in the funeral home industry," said County Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican. The county's standards are "antiquated," he said, and need updating.
West Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty agreed, noting that only visitation rooms are counted in parking requirements, not the large chapels or reception areas at some new funeral homes.
"You used to have people attend services at a church and have a viewing at a funeral home, but now they're all at one place," Fox said.
Their proposal appears to be aimed toward the proposed 23,445-square-foot Donaldson Funeral Home, which would be built on 3.2 acres next to St. Louis Roman Catholic Church on Route 108 in Clarksville. The county hearing examiner is considering conditional-use zoning for the project. Fox's and Sigaty's council districts meet at Route 108.
The facility would have three visitation rooms and four employees, requiring 34 parking spaces; a large reception lobby; and the chapel would seat 150, reduced from 200 originally. Donaldson has proposed 66 parking spaces.
The county's planning staff has recommended zoning approval, but the project is strongly opposed by the St. Louis Church, which has a rectory close to the site.
"It's a funeral home between two churches," said Sang Oh, the attorney for Donaldson, who has argued that the location makes sense.
Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church borders the site on the other side.
Sigaty said the council's consideration this year of new redevelopment rules for Columbia's village centers, for downtown revitalization and other land-use issues made one thing clear: "In all the work we've done over the last year, one of the issues people talk most about is parking," she said.
Fox said married couples might drive to a funeral from separate workplaces, increasing the burden on parking.
The two council members submitted a zoning amendment that would change the standard to one parking space per 50 square feet of usable space, similar to regulations in Carroll and Baltimore counties.
Howard County accepts zoning regulation amendments only in August and February. Each proposal is studied by county planners who make a recommendation to the planning board. The board holds a hearing, then makes its recommendation to the County Council, which has final say.
Sigaty noted that since the council does not consider zoning cases in the months before an election, the funeral home parking issue won't be decided until after November, perhaps not until next year.
"We thought it was important enough to get it in so they could start working on it," she said.
The council is in recess during August, with the next legislative session scheduled Sept. 7.
William E. Erskine, the lawyer for St. Louis Catholic Church, said the proposed funeral home would be too close to a church-owned residence for priests, the church's main objection.
There are two Donaldson funeral homes, in Odenton and Laurel. In 2002, Donaldson sought to build a funeral home in Highland, at Routes 108 and 216, but the effort failed.
Erskine said the church doesn't want such a large facility so close to its residence. "The church feels they are entitled to the same protections as a single-family residence," he said.
The county staff report says there would be adequate landscaping to buffer the residence.
The next hearing on the zoning case is Oct. 4 before the county's hearing examiner.
Erskine has proposed a zoning amendment that would prohibit funeral homes in residential areas not served by public water and sewer, as is the case in Clarksville. Under his proposal, new, larger funeral homes could still be located in commercial areas in the county.
Currently, funeral homes are allowed as a conditional use, which requires a public hearing.
"We've come to the conclusion they're no longer compatible with residential neighborhoods, like a movie theater," he said.
Proposals for large churches in residential areas also have been controversial, but Erskine said churches can reduce crowding by having multiple services, while large crowds attending a funeral would come and go all at one time.
St. Louis supports the Sigaty-Fox proposal, Erskine said, and he expects that if approved, it would apply to the Donaldson project.
Oh said Donaldson tried to work out a shared parking arrangement with the Lutheran church, but objections by St. Louis stopped that.
The question to ask about amending county regulations is "why now?" Oh said.
"It's fairly obvious it's intended to apply in this case," he said.
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