The Prince William Board of Supervisors voted last week to allow crematoriums to be built as part of funeral homes in the county, touching off a stormy reaction from the standing-room-only crowd that vowed to fight the reelection of most members of the board because of their vote.
After the 6-to-1 vote, the residents, who had come to protest the rezoning request from Dale City funeral home owner Earle Mountcastle to build a crematorium, left the meeting hurling insults at the board and vowing also to fight against a road bond referendum that may be included on the fall ballot.
The only dissenting vote came from Neabsco Supervisor John Jenkins, whose district includes Dale City.
The vote came at the end of a meeting at which the board denied a request from the Silver Fox nightclub, also located in Dale City, to allow male exhibition dancing.
In making its decision on the crematorium, the board rejected a substitute motion from Jenkins that would have required any funeral home seeking to build a similar facility to apply for separate rezoning.
"We're trying to find out if we have options to fight this," said protest leader Marcia Wright, who lives in the town house complex that abuts the funeral home. "That crowd was serious about fighting the reelection of the board and the road bond issue. We'll see what we can do under the law."
At the nearly two-hour public hearing before the vote, the crowd of more than 150 residents spilled out into the hallway, causing Chairman Ed King to request often that only those planning to speak be allowed to stand. The board accepted a petition signed by 119 persons that Wright said included people from each of the county's seven magisterial districts except Gainesville. In addition, more than 50 residents spoke in opposition to the crematorium, citing air pollution, increased traffic on Dale Boulevard and property devaluation.
At Jenkins' request, the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board will hold a public hearing at 7:30 p.m. today in the county administration building on Davis Ford Road. According to air pollution board director Lewis Bauman, the crematorium issue is a zoning or land use issue and his board can do nothing to overturn the supervisors' decision.
Bauman said he will, however, write a letter to the Richmond office of the air pollution control board with his observations after tonight's meeting. Crematoriums are regulated by the state and must undergo periodic stack tests to ensure that the amount of particles emitted is at or under the allowable amount.
According to Bauman, crematoriums cause "some moisture and a lot of heat" but no odor. The air pollution control board will issue a permit to the Mountcastle facility only after two initial stack tests that will cost the owner between $1,500 and $2,000, Bauman said.
"I attended both the Planning Commission public hearing and the county board's," he said, "and I never saw anything like that. It was sort of a stick in the eye to put them last but those people were angry and they stayed to the end."
While saying that he sympathized with residents who opposed the crematorium, Bauman cited a recent decision by Alexandria Circuit Court Judge Donald H. Kent to uphold a decision by Alexandria's Board of Zoning Appeals to allow such facilities as funeral home accessories. In addition, the county Planning Commission office noted in its report to the board that Fairfax and Stafford counties allow crematoriums as accessories to all funeral homes while Loudoun and Fauquier counties and Alexandria allow them to be built with a special use permit on an individual basis.
Said Mountcastle, "I believe in traditional funerals but I'm here to serve the public and some people want cremations. I don't like them myself." His error, Mountcastle said, was in neglecting to discuss his plans with the community before going to the county. Recalling that many residents also vowed never to use the facilities if a crematorium is built, Mountcastle said, "that's a calculated risk I'll have to take. The building will cost $750,000 and will be well designed," he said. "When they see what we build and how it operates, over time they may forget that threat. We want to be good neighbors."
Some supervisors said they were angry about the threat to vote against their reelection and against the road bond referendum. "That conduct does not gain them any support at all," said Vice Chairman Joseph Reading. "I don't like threats." Reading said he voted for the crematorium because although he is not a supporter of cremation, the issue is one of land use.
"It's real -- it's not a threat," Wright said. "The board members are not listening to the people who elected them." The idea of a crematorium in a residential area is "ghoulish," Wright added. "It causes some people a psychological problem -- it's just eerie. And that vote was a travesty."