Crematorium battle drags on, both sides criticize county procedures - Albuquerque Journal

Crematorium battle drags on, both sides criticize county procedures

A public notice of the proposed crematorium at 116 Mountain Park Place NW went up according to county procedure in November, but neighbors say it took months for them to get wind of the proposal. (Courtesy of Mary Duneman)

The ongoing battle over a proposed crematorium that has some neighbors fuming in the North Valley isn’t dead yet, but it also doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere.

Since January, neighbors near the proposed site at 116 Mountain Park Place NW have voiced their opposition to the crematorium, arguing that while the street itself is zoned as “light industrial,” it’s surrounded by residential areas filled with living, breathing folks. It’s also less than a half-mile west of Balloon Fiesta Park.

Upset neighbors say they were blindsided by the plans and don’t deserve to be assailed with toxic, smelly emissions from burning bodies that they fear could be worse than what wafts out from the animal crematorium a few doors down from the proposed site.

But crematorium owner Michael Monach said his crematory is state of the art, efficient, safe and won’t produce putrid, poisonous gases and he’s got the documents and research to prove it.

Bernalillo County officials say Monach has diligently followed the process to get his crematorium up, running and burning.

But thus far, the cumbersome machinations of local government seem only to work to silence and aggravate both sides.

The latest incident occurred April 12 at what was supposed to be an in-person Bernalillo County Commission meeting. Neighbors say they had planned to show up in force to support their appeal of the county Planning Commission’s decision in March to approve a special use permit for the crematorium.

“We had a lot of people lined up, experts, photos, graphs, studies,” said Pat Hauser, a member of the nearby Maria Diers Neighborhood Association. “People took time off from work to be there.”

But hours before the meeting was to begin, they were informed it would instead be held online via Zoom because of an unexplained, last-minute COVID-19 concern.

“What a joke,” neighbor Paul Searcy remarked.

To understand the frustration, a little history.

Monach said he had searched for a year for a properly zoned property for a crematorium and mortuary before finding the Mountain Park Place site, a shuttered plumbing business off Second and Alameda NW, in October.

In November, he submitted his application to the Planning Commission for a special use permit and followed the notification process of nearby neighbors and businesses.

Monach’s application was scheduled to go before the Planning Commission on Jan. 5, but a ransomware attack that infected the Bernalillo County computer systems shut down the meeting before his request could be heard.

That was fortuitous, at least as far as neighbors were concerned, because many of them say they never got wind of the proposed crematorium in time.

Monach’s application hearing was rescheduled for Feb. 2, but neighbors complained they were still only learning about the crematorium and wanted more time to respond. Planning commissioners agreed, deferring action on the application until its next meeting March 2.

But at that next meeting, neighbors – and Monach – were not given the chance to speak.

Under the procedures of the commission, discussion was already closed.

Dark smoke billows from a smokestack at the Lasting Paws crematorium at 132 Mountain Park Place NW. Nearby resident Pat Hauser said he has taken hundreds of similar photos of the smoke and is concerned that a human crematorium proposed to be built on the same street will more than double the amount of smoke, smell and toxins. (Courtesy of Pat Hauser)

“My thought was that the applicant would have an opportunity to reach out to the neighbors, which obviously he has done,” Commissioner Joelle Hertel, who had made the motion to defer action from the February meeting, told her fellow commissioners. “So my thoughts now are that we go to a vote.”

And that was that. The commission unanimously approved Monach’s special use permit.

Neighbors seethed, disagreeing that Monach had reached out to them.

But Monach said he had tried to reach out, sending out 25 letters by certified mail. He received only one response.

“I’m happy to educate the public and answer questions, but it’s like I’m the black plague,” he said. “They don’t want to talk to me.”

Neighbors appealed the permit decision, presenting 13 points against the crematorium, at least half alleging mishandling or misrepresentation by the Planning Commission and staff.

That appeal was heard April 12 before the Bernalillo County Commission. The last-minute switch to Zoom impeded many neighbors and experts from attending. The commissioners themselves thwarted the rest of them.

Commissioner Walt Benson, whose district includes the proposed crematorium site, asked that the matter be remanded back to the Planning Commission, this time allowing neighbors to comment.

But the commission took no comments from the neighbors that day, the only discussion on the matter coming from a few of the commissioners, their comments arguably sympathetic to Monach.

Benson and Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada bemoaned how long it took for loved ones to be cremated because of the backlog of bodies at operating crematories.

“It’s kind of an emergency thing going on here,” Quezada said.

Commission Chairwoman Adriann Barboa remarked that she has lived “next door” to a crematorium all her life and has never noted bad effects.

Barboa’s house, which she proudly touts as the same home she grew up in, is a half-mile south of Affordable Cremation and Burial, one of 30 crematories across New Mexico.

Benson’s motion to remand passed unanimously. Within minutes, the meeting was over.

So it’s back to the Planning Commission on May 4.

“It feels like there is no value in taking this back before that board,” Hauser said. “Once they’ve pulled the trigger they can’t pull it back. I find this all so discouraging.”

Still, Hauser said he and others plan to strengthen their resolve to oppose the crematorium with the extra time they’ve been given.

Should that commission stick with its approval, the earliest an appeal can be heard is June.

Should the appeal be denied, neighbors are discussing whether to take the matter to court.

Should that happen, Monach said he intends to countersue.

“For seven months I’ve been stuck in nowheresland,” Monach said. “I understand the neighbors’ concerns, but at the end of the day it boils down to their opinion and I don’t agree with it.”

If only those opinions could be better shared. I obtained a copy of the neighbors’ 13-point appeal. It’s a worthwhile read, too long to print in this column.

My copy also includes Monach’s written responses to each point. They, too, are worth reading.

Imagine if this process allowed for such a give-and-take rather than two-minute morsels of public comments and five-minute rebuttals – if either side gets even that.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, jkrueger@abqjournal.com.

 

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