A potential green cemetery in Central Virginia took another step forward Tuesday.
The Albemarle County Planning Commission recommended approval of a special-use permit that would allow the owners of Panorama Farms to add a natural burial ground to their property.
Green burial grounds do not use embalming, have no plastic liners, concrete vaults or exotic wood caskets and do not have plastic memorials. Instead, they use biodegradable containers, and gravesites are marked with flat stones or native plantings.
Chris Murray, a member of the family that owns the property, said they are continuing to try to keep the farm an open space.
“We want to continue the family’s legacy of environmental stewardship,” he said. “We hope this offers a way to pay for that stewardship, and for it to remain an open space. The alternative — I hate to say it but it has to be said — is essentially another Graemont subdivision, is residential development.”
The farm’s owners applied for a special-use permit for a cemetery on almost 20 acres near the farm’s northwestern entrance off Reas Ford Lane. The property is zoned Rural Area, which allows cemeteries with a permit.
Commissioner Tim Keller said he sees the proposal as a very positive continuation of keeping this Rural Area property rural.
“I would just say that if we saw this area developed to the density that we see around it, there would be a heck of a lot more traffic issues in the future than what is being proposed in this, in the worst-case scenarios,” he said.
State law currently requires cemeteries to be set back 750 feet from the nearest residences, and the farm has received waivers from two neighbors for the cemetery to be closer to their property.
County staff recommended approval of the special-use permit with seven conditions, including that maintenance and operation — such as the digging of graves — of the cemetery is restricted 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; only biodegradable materials may be interred in the ground during burials; no non-biodegradable memorials are permitted; and burial services cannot be scheduled to occur at the same time as special events associated with a 2012 permit to allow events in an existing barn located just south of the proposed cemetery.
In a survey provided by Murray of green or “hybrid” cemeteries in the South, most said they had between eight and 25 attendees for burials and between 15 and 50 burials a year.
Murray said it’s still not common to have a green cemetery.
“It’s not for everyone,” he said. “Natural burial puts the family much closer to the process. It de-sanitizes death, and many report that it has had a profound effect on them and their ability to let go of a loved one.”
Murray said the areas they’ve designated for burials are outside of stream buffers and would not affect the water table.
“Success is based on how little you notice it,” Murray said. “The whole idea is that it remains a natural area.”
The current gravel road off Reas Ford Lane would remain, and a second, older entrance to the farm property would be improved when additional entranceway is needed. The project would have about 10 main parking spots and about 50 overflow spots, and possibly a pavilion in the future.
Mariah Gleason, a county senior planner, said the 2012 permit approved the use of Reas Ford Lane for 24 events a year for up to 200 people each.
“Using that information as a basis, and that the roadway has already been deemed fit for 200-person events, staff concluded that the traffic impact of this use would not be substantially detrimental but included condition number three, which essentially limits the special events and burials from happening simultaneously,” she said. “What we ended up … deducing was that it was alright for 200 people but maybe not 400 people.”
In comments provided to the county, the Virginia Department of Transportation said as long as the entrances see annual average daily traffic of fewer than 50 vehicles, it does not have any objections to the owner’s plans related to the existing highway conditions.
“VDOT, in their review, did not note any necessary improvements. However, should there be a need for improvements along this roadway, the county is able to work with VDOT to have those improvements made,” Gleason said.
Kevin McDermott, an Albemarle planning manager, said he didn’t see this as a significant increase in traffic, but it would be an increase.
“There is a likelihood that some additional maintenance will be required on the road and we have to request that from VDOT when we see problems and/or eventually get permission from the board to pave that road under one of the [state] rural rustic programs,” he said.
McDermott said if the road is in bad condition, he expects that the property owners will reach out to the county and VDOT.
If the proposed pavilion is developed in the future, a site plan would be required, according to the staff report. The site plan would be reviewed by VDOT and county fire/rescue, and any necessary upgrades to the site entrance could be evaluated and required at that time.
If the permit ultimately is approved and in the future the owners wanted to expand the cemetery site, they would need to come back and amend the permit.
During a community meeting in the spring, some neighbors had concerns about traffic around any services. Traffic was also a concern at Tuesday’s meeting.
Three neighbors said they didn’t have issues with the green cemetery concept, but that they are concerned with potential increased traffic along Reas Ford Lane.
“What concerns me with this proposal is that Mr. Murray seeks to establish a commercial enterprise for revenue generation, absent the burden for the impact of the project on the community, namely from the increase in vehicular traffic required to access the proposed site,” said Patrick Funk. “… Access to the site could be made with relatively little expense from the already paved and substantially better infrastructure Panorama Road off of Earlysville Road.”
Murray said it would be “impossible” to put a road from the Earlysville Road side across the farm to the burial ground area.
“You’re crossing two streams and one dam that’s only 10 feet wide,” he said.
A public hearing before the Board of Supervisors on the proposal has not yet been scheduled.