David Rodeback's Blog

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Life Among the Mormons, and Other Stuff

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Thursday, February 5, 2009
Recreation vs. Resting in Peace

This was supposed to be about proposed ordinances in American Fork involving accessory apartments and the licensing of rental properties, but the City Council didn't get that far through its agenda today. Never mind that, though. The discussion of land for cemetery expansion took an interesting and likely decisive twist.

I'm sitting in an American Fork City Council meeting, as I haven't done in a while. It started as a brief regular session, where the Council approved a couple of items. One advances the creation of a new category of (lower) impact fees for strip-mall developments. Developers of such places have been complaining, apparently with some basis, that they've been unfairly lumped into a category of larger businesses and thereby forced to pay excessive impact fees, and that this makes the City "hostile to business." (They have to throw in that last part, for some reason.) The other item was correcting a typo in the modified water rates the Council approved recently. The original modifications (is that an oxymoron?) were in response to well-publicized, quite belated discontent among certain businesses over culinary water rates, which increase later in the year. The change itself seems reasonable, even if the clamor which fueled it went well beyond reason and civility.

Now the meeting is a work session, where the first item is a detailed report on the progress of pressurized irrigation. I won't belabor the details, but the general tenor of the report seems to be the project is on schedule and on budget. Certainly, contractors are cheaper to come by now than they were previously.

I'm here for discussion later in the meeting of two proposed ordinances, one requiring the licensing of rental dwellings and another creating a new zoning overlay that would allow and regulate accessory apartments. The Neighborhood Preservation Committee (formerly Nuisance Abatement Committee) has been working on these issues (among others) for some time, as have some members of the City staff. If it's all the same to you, I think I'll tune out until we get to those issues.

On Second Thought

Okay, I changed my mind. After discussion of another item or two which I basically ignored, attention in the meeting has turned to the vexing problem of finding land for cemetery expansion. You will probably recall that this has been a growing concern for some years; some now call it a crisis. And you will recall that the voters told the City to take a hike last November, when it wanted to issue bonds to finance the purchase of more cemetery land (among many other things).

Now there seems to be some effort by Councilman Dale Gunther to find a way for new cemetery land to pay for itself, but the main thrust seems to be a serious effort to find land the City already owns, which might be suitable for cemetery use. Today's treatment of the general subject began as a report by the Cemetery Committee on the suitability of some land west of the LDS Temple, near the Developmental Center. As it turns out, the land is unsuitable and would be quite expensive to prepare for cemetery use.

The discussion turned -- actually, the Committee members turned it -- to the suitability of Filly and Pony Park for conversion to cemetery land. It is across 600 North from the Cemetery, between the Recreation Center and the cemetery. All else being equal (which it rarely is), it appears to be the most suitable city-owned property for the purpose. (Here's a Google Map of the area.)

There's Background, and Then There's Background

It hasn't been more than three years since the City last seriously considered converting Filly and Pony Park to cemetery use. At that time, a group of vocal residents -- mostly neighbors of the park, more or less -- opposed it, and the idea seemed to fall from favor. Current City Councilor Sherry Kramer was prominent in the opposition; she was not then a member of the Council.

Kramer still opposes the idea, and for a while during today's meeting it sounded like we were gearing up for an interesting, relatively evenly-matched battle between her side (the folks who feel that recreation programs and the parks that contain them should trump other considerations) and the opposition (those who feel that programs can be moved, but cemetery land is hard to come by). Time has passed, after all, and the cemetery situation has worsened and become more urgent. I could envision reconsideration of the old idea going the opposite way this time, especially in view of the City's fiscal crunch and the voters' recent rejection of the proposed cemetery bond issue.

Then a relative old-timer said something new in the discussion, which I thought, when I heard it, would easily tip the balance toward using the park for cemetery land, if it stuck. He noted that back in the early 1980s (when I lived in a neighboring state and was in high school, give or take), the City acquired the property with the intent to use it for cemetery expansion when needed, and decided to use it for a park in the meantime, avoiding in the meantime the creation of any structures that would be expensive to remove later. Apparently, the intent was to move the ball fields (so to speak) to Art Dye Park, when the time came.

The meeting isn't over yet, and I haven't had a chance to see what individual City Councilors have to say on the subject, but I've now heard the same thing from three of the meeting's speakers. Two are former mayors Kay Hutchings and Jess Green, and the third is Alan Anderson, who has, in his profession as a funeral director, been burying people in the American Fork Cemetery for some decades. We'd be hard pressed to find three people in the city more likely to have noticed and to remember this little tidbit.

If some members of the City Council are still on the fence over this one, this will sway them -- at least enough of them to carry the day.

Assumptions and Summation

There are prior questions, to which we are simply assuming the answers. Should a municipality feel obligated to provide burial space for all comers? Back East, among other places, cemeteries tend to be owned by churches or private concerns, not municipalities. But it seems to be the will of the people here in Utah that municipalities provide cemeteries. (This does not offend my inclinations toward limited government. It is important that national and state governments be tightly constrained, leaving the people of each community to decide what they care about enough to have their local government -- forgive me -- undertake.)

For that matter, should a municipality tax its people to provide recreation venues and programs? Again, this seems to be the will of the people here, and -- again -- my sense of limited government is not scandalized by it, since the decisions are being made and implemented locally, at the level of government nearest and most responsive to the people.

Given that the City is in the cemetery business and the recreation business, and is likely to remain so, and given the difficulties in finding other land for cemetery use (and acquiring it, as necessary), I confess that I was persuaded before I heard the little morsel of history I reported above: Let's use Filly and Pony Park to expand the American Fork Cemetery. It's true that I have no sentimental attachment to the park or the programs there, while others do. It's true that I don't live near the park, while others do. And it's true that I neither get to vote on this nor have people who voted for me, who feel strongly about this issue, to whom I feel some obligation. Others do.

I'm prepared in principle to acknowledge the validity of opposite views, and to acknowledge that the present City Council should not feel bound by a previous council's intent. But the apparent fact that the land was originally acquired for cemetery use badly weakens the park's defenders. We already know that my crystal ball skills are zero, but I expect that to sway the Council vote, as I said.

Miscellaneous Thoughts

If we're going to use the park for cemetery land, let's look at whether the piece of 600 West itself between the cemetery and the current park -- I mean the street and its right-of-way -- wouldn't be more useful as cemetery land than as a street (except, perhaps, for a much narrower driveway to the Recreation Center). I won't hold my breath on this one, but why not wonder about it, at least?

If turned to cemetery use, Filly and Pony Park will help for 10 or 15 years, but the cemetery problem will just keep getting bigger. The city is growing, which means more people who lived here will want to be buried here, even as there is less available land for such things. We can't exactly have people bury loved ones in their back yards, after all, and you'll never be able to sell a mostly-Mormon population on the virtues of cremation, even if the LDS Church doesn't forbid cremation. (Note to self: When my turn comes for resurrection, remember to ask for a new set of molecules, even if some of the old ones are still mouldering somewhere.)

Someone at the meeting insightfully noted that a cemetery is itself a recreational facility. (Joggers of the Cemetery, Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose but Your Acreage!)

There was talk of fashioning two or three proposals and inviting public comment. This is probably a good idea, if it is done well, as in the case of pressurized irrigation. But it's a bad idea, if it's done poorly, as in the case of five recent bond issues. In any event, our elected officials will be unable to please everyone in this matter, which means it's time for . . . leadership.

We Never Got There

When all is said and done -- at least where this meeting is concerned -- I'm pleased that the rest of the meeting's agenda held some interest for me, because too many people had to leave after the cemetery discussion, and the meeting has been adjourned before consideration of the issues which drew me to the meeting in the first place. Maybe next time . . .

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