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Reinventing Lower Merion's Historical Buildings: Public Hearing Set on Policy

The township is considering how to respond to a growing number of historic, non-residential buildings falling out of use.

Residents of Lower Merion will have their say in September on a proposed policy governing how the owners of religious institutions and other non-residential historic structures can repurpose the buildings.

The Board of Commissioners voted 9-2 at Wednesday night's meeting to schedule a Sept. 19 public hearing on the subject, which was . Commissioners made clear there would be several revisions before any ordinance is adopted.

Half a dozen property owners have recently asked the township how and when they can convert all or part of their religious sanctuaries or club buildings, said building and planning director Bob Duncan.

His staff drafted ordinance language (attached to this article) that would give owners of such properties some additional flexibility in the permitting process and in establishing buffers along property lines. However, Duncan and the commissioners had not resolved matters such as how to change parking requirements when, for example, a church becomes an apartment building.

The thorniest issue of the commissioners' debate Wednesday night, though, was how to weigh the custody of cemeteries in such cases.

Duncan told commissioners that applicants would have to demonstrate the financial ability to maintain attached cemeteries in perpetuity.

"How do you calculate it?" asked Commissioner Dan Bernheim. "The costs could be astronomical."

Complicating matters, abandoned cemeteries typically pass into the care of the municipality, Duncan said.

Commissioner Jenny Brown said, "I don’t think the questions have been answered sufficiently to move forward with the cemetery part." She proposed the ordinance make buildings with cemeteries ineligible for the conversion treatment being considered, but a majority of commissioners rejected her amendment.

The board has decided to only consider properties on the township's historic inventory. Property owners can apply to be added to that list.

Said Commissioner Cheryl Gelber, "The whole purpose of this ordinance is to protect those buildings that are historic. I think to expand this to include all clubs and lodges is getting too broad. There's no reason to keep an old building just because it’s an old building."

Mark Herrmann from spoke on behalf of institutions that, like his, are looking to stay functional in part by convert only part of their properties to other uses.

"We're trying to do this to allow the church to survive," Herman said. "When you consider this, please separate in your mind those facilities that are closed and subject to redevelopment and those that are open and trying to stay so."

Brown and Commissioner Phil Rosenzweig voted against scheduling the public hearing, as Rosenzweig called the proposal "nowhere near ready to be adopted." The other nine commissioners in attendance voted in favor; commissioners Lew Gould, Rick Churchill and Steven Lindner were absent for the vote.

Patch editor Danielle Vickery contributed to this report.

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