12/22/2016 2:13:00 PM County board says no to EAW; denies cemetery permit
The Chisago County Board declined to grant a Conditional Use Permit for a new natural burial cemetery, proposed in the township south of Chisago City, on a 3-2 vote December 21.
Commissioners Mike Robinson and Ben Montzka opposed the motion to deny the permit.
The motion maker, George McMahon, authored the action as his conclusion that the site is inappropriate and would result in loss of property value for surrounding parcels. McMahon was joined by Commissioners Rick Greene and Lora Walker who also felt the site was not suited to a cemetery use. They had concerns over being able to place enough conditions on the land use permit to address all the concerns that have been expressed.
This permit has generated heavy attendance at hearings and County Board meetings by county residents opposed. Perhaps a neighboring property owner summed up the opposition best: when he stated during the agenda’s regular slot for public microphone, that applicants for the cemetery permit have not paid taxes, have no votings rights in Chisago County and haven’t been involved for years actively improving local life. The organization applying to develop the private cemetery is based in Minneapolis.
“We lose twice,” the man stated, if the cemetery is allowed. He added, longtime local residents, who trust the commissioners to represent their interests, lose a wide open country view and peace of mind, plus value of property will decline. County taxpayers will also surely lose again, and end up paying the bill for a turn lane off Lofton Avenue, when it’s determined later the cemetery traffic congests the area.
Enes Gluhic, representing the cemetery organization Islamic Community of Bosniaks in Minnesota-- also stood during public microphone to reiterate that the cemetery is well off the road and will be buffered with diverse plantings. “Minimal” sized headstones are used traditionally. He observed there are quite a few cemeteries in Chisago county right alongside roadways, highly visible and closely surrounded by residential lots.
Prior to the vote denying the permit-- the Board was required to act on a petition for an EAW. Commissioners were displeased with the short notice to act on the citizens’ petition of the Environmental Quality Board. A letter informing the zoning staff from the EQB was dated Tuesday.
The Environmental Assessment Worksheet creation is done at the discretion of the local governing unit-- a cemetery is not attached to a mandatory worksheet as a step towards being authorized, under law.
County Administrator Bruce Messelt described the two different standards at play in this decision. The project does not meet “significant” environmental impacts that are generally required to instigate an EAW. Zoning staff recommend NOT doing the worksheet. The county local permit environmental standards are broader and the permit can resolve environmental concerns without a worksheet. The Board is not voting on an either-or situation, Messelt stated. Conditions can be written as part of the conditional use permit to protect wells, preserve farmland drainage, create setbacks, etc.
The vote to NOT mandate an EAW be done, was 3-2.
Commissioners Lora Walker and acting chair Ben Montzka took the stance that it wouldn’t hurt to do an EAW.
Commissioner Montzka noted he’s been on the Board for 18 years and has never had a new cemetery permit come before him-- let alone for a “natural” or “green” burial cemetery. He said he researched no-coffin burials and cultures that do not embalm or process the deceased, and he said, “For myself I don’t think it’s a bad idea to do a worksheet.”
Commissioner Walker agreed saying she had “lots” of calls on this permit and was inundated with questions she could not answer. The three commissioners who supported denying the EAW step; felt the process would be unnecessarily delayed and everybody deserved a speedy resolution to this issue. “I don’t think it’s fair” to stretch this out requiring a worksheet when there have been no new environmental concerns submitted, McMahon explained.
Mike Robinson handed over the gavel to Commissioner Montzka at the start of the meeting, stating he did not want to be perceived as tainting the process. Robinson declared the opposition was using all sorts of “excuses” to deny this cemetery, when they really are opposed to the Muslim community using this. He briefly described Robinson family relatives who immigrated to America to avoid religious persecution hundreds of years ago.
Commissioner McMahon stressed that nobody who contacted him expressed anything about Muslims being the applicants and opposition was only about a poor site and general dislike of the valuation impacts having any cemetery nearby. “It’s a land use issue” McMahon concluded.