Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church at 2 East Mount Vernon Place.

The developer who has a contract to purchase Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church says he is willing to sell that contract to a local community association, if its members want to buy it.

Joseph Novoseller, the head of Aria Legacy Group of Lakewood, New Jersey, said in a phone interview today that he is willing to meet with leaders of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association (MVBA) and discuss a possible sale of the landmark church property at 2 to 10 East Mount Vernon Place.

Novoseller disclosed his offer 16 days after the MVBA filed an appeal with the Appellate Court of Maryland, challenging a decision by Baltimore’s Planning Commission to approve his request to subdivide the church from the adjacent church office building, known as Asbury House.

On November 3, Circuit Court for Baltimore City Judge Jeffrey Geller ruled that the Planning Commission acted properly when it approved Novoseller’s request to subdivide the church property. The MVBA appealed the decision on December 7. It was the third time that the community has gone to court to challenge the city’s approval of the subdivision.

Novoseller said he doesn’t usually talk to reporters but he did so today because he has been frustrated by the community’s lack of support for his purchase of the church property, as demonstrated by the recent appeal. He said the sale has been in the works for two and a half years.

Jack Danna, president of the MVBA, could not be reached. Henry Hopkins, president of the board of the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, which has a strong interest in the fate of the landmark church, said Novoseller’s offer was news to him and that he would confer with the MVBA. Hopkins said he was encouraged to learn about Novoseller’s offer but would have to “cogitate” about it.

“It’s extremely encouraging,” Hopkins said, but “I don’t know what he’s going to want in return.”

Novoseller said he has remained interested in buying the church despite the previous appeals filed by the MVBA and is still interested in the property. At the same time, he said, he is frustrated that the MVBA keeps challenging the planning commission’s decision to approve a subdivision of the property, when he believes it was the correct decision.

“The Mount Vernon Belvedere Association, in their last court appearance, the judge came back with I think it was almost a 30-minute decision [in which] he verbally spoke out and he shot down and denied every one of their claims, beginning to end,” Novoseller said. “And I think the reason he did that was because he felt pretty strongly that they were wrong.

“The fact that they are appealing this again to me just appears to be a harassment technique because they obviously don’t have a case and they just want us to get frustrated and go away. We are very patient people. We are not in a rush, and we are here probably for the long haul.”

At the same time, he said. “we hate fighting with people. And because of that, I even offered to them that they can buy this contract from us, or work together with us, and we’ve reached out through our attorneys numerous times to meet with them, and they’ve denied it every time.

“I really don’t understand the motivation and I don’t think it’s for the good of the community,” he continued. “Because if it was, they would have met with us a long time ago or bought our interest in the contract or done something else to work in a peaceful way and not just fight. That would be the only message I would ask you to give back to them…That’s really where the situation stands.”

Novoseller said he has given the community “numerous opportunities” to resolve the issue.

“Just last week or two weeks ago, right after the last [court] decision, I told my lawyer Adam [Ruther], please call them,” he said. “Ask them if they want to sit with us. I’ll be happy to sit with them and come up with a game plan, now that we won. I was even willing to do that. And then they came and started this appeal again. It just makes no logical sense to me…If we can resolve this in a nice way, I’m game.”

‘Fighting rarely helps anybody’

A sale price for the church and Asbury House has never been disclosed. Local real estate sources have put the figure at around $1 million. The seller is the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, based in Fulton, Maryland.

Novoseller declined to say for publication how much money he would want for his contract but he has a number in mind and he has shared it with the MVBA. He said he would want enough to cover his expenses in the property to date.

“We’ve had a lot of costs – legal fees, etc., so I’m not willing to lose money on this,” he said. “But we would be happy to sit with them. And if they want to work together and do a joint partnership, I’d probably come up with a way to try to do that. I’ve been in business many, many years, and fighting rarely helps anybody but the attorneys. We’re here to make money, not to spend money. So whenever they want, I’m willing to sit and talk.”

Novoseller added that he was surprised that the MVBA filed its appeal without notifying him first.

Joseph Novoseller, the head of Aria Legacy Group of Lakewood, New Jersey, who wants to buy the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church. Photo via Joseph Novoseller’s LinkedIn.

“I’ve never sued anybody or gone after anybody without first calling them and having a sit-down,” he said. “I’ll be happy to meet with them without lawyers or with lawyers, on the record, off the record, anyway they want. Two people sitting across from each other, who have the objective of settling something and coming up with a solution, can usually do it.”

Novoseller said he has a good relationship with the seller but has been holding off on closing on the property until he knows the community won’t fight what he wants to do. Going forward, he said, he wants to approach this in a positive way.

“We’re not looking to hurt [the MVBA] or the neighborhood,” he said. “We came in to improve the neighborhood…They just kind of punch us in the stomach every opportunity they get…All we’re really waiting for is for the association to just stop harassing us.”

The historic church turned 150 years old in 2022 but has not been open for in-person worship services since before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has a small but active congregation that has been holding services via Zoom during the COVID pandemic.

Subdivision requested in 2020

The court appeals started in 2020, after Novoseller negotiated a contract with the Methodist conference to purchase the historic church, which dates from 1872, and Asbury House, which dates from 1855, and asked for a hearing with the planning commission.

Built as a private residence, Asbury House was acquired by the church in 1957 and legally combined with the church in 1961 to form one tax-exempt parcel, with one deed. Both structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are part of the city’s Mount Vernon Historic District.

In a planning commission hearing on October 22, 2020, Novoseller and his attorney told the commissioners that he wants to separate the church structure from Asbury House, so he would have more options in determining how to redevelop the property.

Novoseller told the commission that he wanted the ability to sell off Asbury House at 10 East Mount Vernon Place – an action that would require the property to be legally subdivided — and retain the church on the corner for future uses he did not specify. He said he envisioned allowing the Methodist congregation to continue meeting there and adding other uses, possibly arts-related, but wanted city approval to separate it from Asbury House.

More than 65 people from the community wrote or testified that they opposed the subdivision. They argued that separating Asbury House from the church would make it harder for anyone to renovate the church, because the two have operated as one interconnected property for decades. They said parts of Asbury House, such as its relatively flat roof, would be the logical place to put new mechanical equipment for the church, but that likely wouldn’t be possible if the property were subdivided.

An attorney for the MVBA, Gregory Rapisarda, argued that subdividing the property would trigger a number of zoning violations, involving setbacks and the number of parking spaces needed by the church and a day care program that operates in its basement, among other issues.

Under the developer’s subdivision plan, Rapisarda noted, parking spaces now used by the church would become part of the Asbury House property and potentially no longer available for use by the church.

Despite the community opposition, the commission approved Novoseller’s application by a vote of 5 to 2, with one recusal. Commission chair Sean Davis acknowledged during the hearing that he did not read all of the letters and emails from Mount Vernon residents.

Decision reversed

After the Planning Commission ruled in favor of the developer, the MVBA appealed its decision in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. In August of 2021, Circuit Court Judge Jeanne Hong held a hearing and sided with the community, reversing the commission’s decision and sending the issue back to the commission for another hearing.

Hong’s order meant that Novoseller did not have approval to subdivide the church from Asbury House as needed before he could sell off Asbury House. Her ruling stopped short of addressing the merits of the legal arguments presented in her hearing.

In a memorandum, Hong said she was reversing the planning commission’s decision because the panel failed to “outline its reasoning for its decision.” She said the commission “must make findings of fact and conclusions of law so that a court could, in fact, look at the decision and review it substantively.”

After Hong’s ruling, the planning commission conferred with the city’s law department and held another hearing about the subdivision request on October 28, 2021. At that meeting, it approved a statement outlining the “findings of fact and conclusions of law that led to its earlier approval of the subdivision despite the community opposition. It did not accept new public testimony. In effect, it took the same position as before, allowing the subdivision requested by Novoseller.

In response, the MVBA filed a second appeal with the Circuit Court, seeking a review of the planning commission’s action.

On October 28, 2022, Judge Jeffrey Geller held a hearing on the case, and six days later he ruled in favor of the planning commission and the developer. Geller said on November 3 that he did not believe the appellants had legal standing to bring the case before a judge and even if they did, he was not persuaded by the arguments put forth by their attorneys. This is the decision the MVBA appealed on December 7.

Jack Danna, president of the MVBA, said earlier this month that he believed the association’s lawyers showed that the appellants had standing to bring the case to court. Beyond that, he said, he disagreed with the judge’s conclusion that the planning commission acted properly.

Danna said the church property does not currently adhere to certain zoning code regulations pertaining to setbacks and off-street parking requirements, but because it was built before the code was adopted it wasn’t required to comply.

When a property is subdivided and new deeds are created, he said, the new properties are no longer “grandfathered in” and exempted from complying with the city code, as the undivided property was before. He said the subdivision requested by Novoseller creates more than a half dozen new code violations and the planning commission’s vote didn’t take that into account.

For example, he said, the subdivision plan allots most of the parking spaces on the property to Asbury House when they were available to the church before, and that would make the church even more out of compliance with the zoning code than it is now.

Danna said he believes the judge should have considered the zoning code implications of the proposed subdivision in his ruling and that is one of the main reasons the MVBA filed its appeal.

After the second Circuit Court appeal was filed, it took nearly a year for a judge to hold a hearing and render a decision. No dates have been set for the appeal to be heard by the Appellate Court.

Church Pastor Roderick Miller declined to comment on the latest court proceedings. According to its website, the church’s next virtual service is on Christmas Day at 10:30 a.m.

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.