Largo commission denies crematory proposal
By LORRI HELFAND
Published October 4, 2006
LARGO — After almost seven hours of debate, City Commissioners voted 5-1 to deny a plan to build one of the largest crematories in Pinellas County at Serenity Gardens Memorial Park.
Largo Mayor Pat Gerard said the proposed crematory facility, at 13,177-square feet, was out of scale with homes in the neighborhood, and thus incompatible.
"Of all the locations on that property, that's probably the worst one you could have picked, right next to the road and right next to single-family homes," said Gerard.
The crematory, which would serve nine funeral homes in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, would be built on the southeast end of the Serenity Gardens property on Wilcox Road, about 120 feet from nearby homes.
Commissioner Gigi Arntzen said she put the comments of residents over the testimony of hired experts.
"My job is to preserve the quality of life and protect the residents. They are going to be here long after you've collected your checks and gone home," Arntzen said.
But Commissioner Gay Gentry, who voted in favor of the project, said she couldn't put the property rights of residents above those of Serenity Gardens.
Vice Mayor Harriet Crozier, who retired as office manager from Serenity Gardens on Sept. 2, abstained from the vote.
Ed Armstrong, an attorney representing Serenity Gardens, said his client hadn't decided whether it would appeal the commission's decision.
More than 200 residents packed City Hall Tuesday, with about 30 begging commissioners to deny the plan to build the crematory. Most who spoke said they feared decreasing home values and increasing traffic, noise and pollution.
"It's my paradise. With a crematory, paradise will be gone," said resident Robin Grondin, breaking into tears.
Resident Dennis Vellardita, who lives across from the proposed crematory, said it was obvious the project was incompatible.
"It's the size of an Eckerds and it's going to have three ovens," said Vellardita, referring to the proposed crematory, which would have three furnaces.
And former commissioner Marty Shelby, who was on the commission in 2000 when the city code was changed to allow a crematory on the site, said he never anticipated a project of this magnitude there. He urged commissioners to deny the crematory.
A few Largo commissioners grilled experts hired by Serenity Gardens, asking them to prove that property values and air quality would not be harmed by the crematory. Commissioner Andy Guyette was specifically concerned about the impact of mercury on nearby residents.
Crematory emissions typically produce carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. Mercury is also emitted when remains with silver amalgam dental fillings are cremated.
Scientist Byron Nelson, hired by Serenity Gardens, said he thought the facility would have little impact, but did say that mercury can cause damage to the brain and central nervous system.
Peter Hessling, air quality division director for Pinellas County, said some studies say mercury is a non issue related to crematories.
He has said an emission inventory calculation in 2002 found that the county's crematories yielded about 17 pounds of mercury that year. There are currently 10 crematories in the county, with a total of 17 cremation furnaces.
An attorney representing Serenity Gardens also grilled some of the residents, asking them to verify their credentials to talk about the impact of the project.
Martin Engelmann, a real estate appraisal expert, told commissioners there would be no impact on property values. Engelmann studied homes near similar crematories in Palm Harbor, Dunedin and Brandon, and homes farther away from those crematories.
Commissioners Guyette and Mary Gray Black asked if Engelmann knew whether the crematories he studied had three furnaces, such as the one proposed. Engelmann said he did not.
Neighbors have been fighting against the facility for more than a year. Besides three furnaces, the facility would have included a refrigeration unit for up to 100 bodies, parking and a casket storage room.
A real estate specialist for Pinellas County Schools, which owns an adjacent 30-acre site, also weighed in on the issue. He asked commissioners to consider adding a condition that would require Serenity Gardens to obtain a study to show dispersal patterns of particulates, mercury, carbon monoxide and other emissions.
Serenity Gardens, owned by SCI Funeral Services of Florida, is a subsidiary of Houston's Service Corporation International. The parent company has a network of more than 1,400 funeral homes and cemeteries in North America.
City staff recommended approval of the proposed crematory. But on Sept. 7, the city's planning board recommended that city commissioners deny the plan.
The city initially said the decision about the crematory was up to city staffers. 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.