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Neighborhoodsby Ed Gunts4:01 pmDec 7, 20200

Community contests Planning Commission vote to subdivide Mount Vernon Place church parcel

Court challenge is the latest appeal of a decision made under Chairman Sean Davis

Above: The United Methodist Church and Asbury House (at right, behind trees) occupy a key corner of Mount Vernon Place. (Ed Gunts)

Another community group has mounted a legal challenge to a controversial Baltimore Planning Commission decision made under chairman Sean Davis.

This time it’s the Mount Vernon Belvedere Improvement Association (MVBA), reacting to the commission’s 5 to 2 vote to approve a developer’s application to subdivide the historic Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church property.

The MVBA has filed an appeal in Baltimore Circuit Court asking for judicial review of the commission’s decision regarding the subdivision application.

The action from Mount Vernon comes after residents of the Clipper Mill community in Woodberry appealed two decisions by the commission to approve construction proposals from developer Larry Jennings, even though the panel heard extensive testimony from residents objecting to Jennings’ plans.

A $25 million lawsuit filed by Jennings against the residents for speaking to the Planning Commission was rejected last month by Circuit Court Judge John Nugent.

In the Mount Vernon case, the Planning Commission approved a request from New Jersey developer Joseph Novoseller to subdivide the 1872 church from an adjacent 1855 church office building so he could sell off the office building and essentially use the proceeds from that sale to help pay for the church.

Davis, the chairman, admitted during the meeting that he had not read all of the letters and email messages sent to the commission opposing the developer’s application.

Sean Davis speaks to the Planning Commission yesterday. To his left is Chris Ryder, director of the Planning Department, that recommended the $182,000 payment for tree cutting be reaffirmed by the commission. (Baltimore Planning Commission)

Sean Davis speaks to the Planning Commission at a recent virtual meeting. To his left is Chris Ryer, director of the Planning Department.

At several points during the meeting, Davis expressed a desire for the commission not to get bogged down in testimony over issues that he considered irrelevant to the hearing, such as possible future uses for the church.

City Planning Director Chris Ryer today declined to comment because legal action is pending. Davis, Novoseller and Novoseller’s attorney, Caroline Hecker, did not respond to requests for comment.

Residents Unable to Testify

After the October public hearing, which was held virtually, at least four Mount Vernon residents said they tried to testify via Webex, but weren’t given a chance to speak.

One resident unable to testify, Drew Rieger, saved a screen shot of an email thread showing that a city planner was aware of his request to address the commission, but told him to write his thoughts in the comments section instead.

One person who did get to speak, attorney and zoning specialist Gregory Rapisarda, argued that the commission shouldn’t take any action without the city’s zoning board and zoning administrator taking action simultaneously, which wasn’t happening.

The planning commission, led by Davis, took a vote anyway.

SILENCED: Drew Rieger stands next to United Methodist Church he wanted to testify about. (Ed Gunts)

SILENCED: Drew Rieger stands next to United Methodist church he wanted to testify about. (Ed Gunts)

MPIA Filed

Mount Vernon’s appeal, filed on the association’s behalf by Rapisarda, does not in itself block a subdivision. But it can make it difficult for property owners or investors to obtain loans to buy or sell any part of the property in question, according to legal experts, because lenders typically are reluctant to loan money for property that is clouded by pending court activity.

In addition to appealing the planning commission’s ruling, the MVBA also served the Planning Department with a Maryland Public Information Act request, seeking every communication, file or document relating to the church property subdivision, including social media postings.

Before the October 22 hearing, several planning department staff members, some not representing themselves as city employees, posted messages on social media that appeared to defend Novoseller’s actions and downplayed the community’s concerns about the fate of the landmark church next to the Washington Monument.

• To reach this reporter: edgunts@aol.com

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