Unified in angst over crematory

Residents hold their second neighborhood protest as city commissioners prepare to vote on the proposed facility.

Published September 30, 2006

LARGO - A plan to build one of Pinellas County's largest crematories at Serenity Gardens Memorial Park has unified the cemetery's neighbors unlike anything in memory.

"It seems like most of the people I talk to are really upset," said Carol Miles, 73, wife of the late City Commissioner James Miles. "I've never seen any issue come up that had so much sentiment about it."

Worried about decreasing home values and increasing traffic, noise and pollution, residents have fought the proposed crematory for more than a year.

Dozens have shared their opinions at city meetings. And behind the scenes, they've kept the issue alive through e-mails, the media, informal meetings and door-to-door campaigns.

On Friday, they held their second neighborhood protest, gearing up for Tuesday's City Commission meeting, during which commissioners are scheduled to vote on the project.

About 120 people lined Wilcox Road near where the crematory would be built. A few wore white surgical masks over their mouths and noses, and several carried handmade signs with slogans including "Save Our Property Values" and "Make Love, Not Ashes."

Those who live near the proposed crematory have turned the fight into a David vs. Goliath battle, pitting themselves against the nation's largest funeral service company.

"The cemetery people are so big and so powerful, they can afford to be in your face about this," said Stanley Gams, 57.

Serenity Gardens is owned by SCI Funeral Services of Florida, a subsidiary of Houston's Service Corporation International, a company with a network of more than 1,400 funeral homes and cemeteries in North America. In fiscal year 2005, total revenues for the company exceeded $1.7-billion, according to its Web site.

Neighbors paint the company as unrelenting and insensitive, but Moss Feaster Serenity Gardens general manager Richard Chesler said his company always strives to be neighborly.

"We are a community neighbor," Chesler said. "We always have been, and we will continue to do that no matter what they do."

He said his company participated in two neighborhood compatibility meetings instead of the one required, and it also designed the structure with landscape buffers and appealing features to better fit the neighborhood.

Besides, he said, his company hasn't done anything wrong.

"We're following the guidelines the city set up for us to develop our land," he said.

The proposed 13,177-square-foot facility would include a building with three furnaces, a refrigeration unit with a capacity for 100 bodies, fleet parking and storage. It would serve about eight funeral homes in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

The city's development code allows cemeteries with crematories on institutional sites. It also requires new structures to be compatible with the neighborhood.

The city initially said the decision about the crematory was up to city staffers, who recommended approval. But City Manager Steve Stanton said the plan should come before the City Commission because city code allows for a public hearing in cases in which a staff review alone wouldn't protect the public interest.

On Sept. 7, the city's planning board sided with about 75 neighbors who packed City Hall and recommended that city commissioners deny the plan.

The proposed site of the crematory is on the southeast corner of the property on Wilcox Road north of Mia Circle. It's about 120 feet from some residences.

Residents on Mia Circle and nearby Sophia Circle have been a close-knit group for years, said Gerald Flanagan, 65, who lives on Mia Circle.

But other neighbors, including those who live in upscale Kensington Oaks, off Indian Rocks Road, also have joined the cause.

"The one remarkable thing is the fact that I am now on a first-name basis with people within a half mile radius from my house," Gams said. "We could easily sit down and have a block party. It's interesting the way adversity brings people together into a coalition."

Meanwhile, there are rumors that the cemetery is considering moving the crematory elsewhere on the property, farther away from homes.

Gams said he heard that the project's attorney might be putting out feelers to see if there was support for such a move.

Commissioner Gigi Arntzen said she also heard that moving the facility was a possibility. And Stanton said he "strongly advised" the cemetery to do so.

But Chesler and Ed Armstrong, a lawyer who represents Serenity Gardens, said the company isn't planning to move the crematory.

"It's something the company might take a look at," Armstrong said. "Right now, the plan is to put it on Wilcox, and that's the direction we're proceeding in currently."

Some residents might be open to the idea of moving the crematory if it means downsizing the facility as well.

Miles said she might be able to "swallow" a facility farther from homes.

And resident Sam Maisano said he might be able to envision a small crematory "back in the weeds there."

"But this one is a factory," said Maisano, 69.

Several residents said crematories don't belong near homes, and it's too late to propose such a change.

"Don't put it near Largo residents. Put it in an industrial area where it belongs," Flanagan said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or 727 445-4155.