Rules should reduce crematory controversy

Published August 9, 2007

Proposals to build new crematories are less likely to cause controversy in Largo in the future, following the Largo City Commission's changes to city codes Tuesday. The commission voted unanimously to change the Comprehensive Development Code so crematories could be located only on industrial properties in the city.

Two years ago, a proposal by SCI Funeral Services to build a crematory at its Serenity Gardens Memorial Park cemetery led to protests by neighborhoods across the road. Residents feared traffic, noise, odors and potentially unhealthy air pollution from the crematory.

It was only then that the city realized its existing rules about crematories didn't protect neighborhoods from such uses nearby. That's because city codes permitted crematories at cemeteries, which had institutional zoning and often were surrounded by homes. After months of debate and community meetings, the City Commission denied the Serenity Gardens proposal, but the decision is being appealed by the applicant in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.

On Tuesday, city commissioners voted not only to limit crematories to industrial areas and lot sizes of at least 20,000 square feet, but also to require them to be at least 500 feet from residences. Commissioners agreed there was a need for a distance requirement so a crematory could not be built on an industrial lot right across the street from residential parcels.

There was substantial debate, however, about the magic number for distance from residences, with some commissioners wanting a distance of 1,000 feet. Largo commissioners aren't particularly interested in ever dealing with crematory proposals again. However, City Attorney Alan Zimmett warned them that the city would be on shaky legal ground if they regulated crematories out of the city entirely, which would be the likely effect of a 1,000-foot distance requirement.

Commissioner Mary Gray Black still argued for 1,000 feet, saying the purpose was to protect the health of city residents, not to keep out crematories. City commissioners wisely settled on 500 feet after a lengthy discussion. The proposed limitations on crematories already were substantial under the proposed changes, with commercial properties in addition to residential and institutional ones excluded from the locations where crematories could be built.

In such a densely populated county, where no open land for new cemeteries remains, the need for crematories is only going to grow. Largo residents will need that service, so the city was right to retain some areas where crematories would be allowed. Limiting them to industrial areas retains that possibility, while the other changes approved by the commission help to reduce the impact on any homes nearby.