HARWICH — Paperwork for calling a special town meeting was issued this past week to Tom Birch, an outspoken opponent of using a 2.25 acre parcel of town land on Queen Anne Road to establish a pet burial ground and crematorium.
Birch said on Tuesday he is looking at the options of calling a special town meeting to reconsider the town meeting vote in 2016 giving the cemetery commission custody and control of the parcel to develop a pet crematory and pet cemetery.
The plan to construct a pet burial ground and a crematory drew a lot of criticism, including a petition presented to selectmen in late April asking the board to revisit the issue. Funding issues and competition with private enterprise have been concerns raised about the project.
Work on the burial grounds got underway this past year using funds from a cemetery revolving account for “maintenance, care and support of town cemeteries.” But town counsel called into question the use of those funds, pointing out the cemetery account was for use for maintaining grounds for human remains and not for animal remains. There had been no town meeting appropriation included with the initial article.
There was also an article placed in this year's annual town meeting seeking $577,950 to build a crematorium. After questions were raised about funds spent in developing the pet burial grounds, the article was indefinitely postponed and a debt exclusion ballot question seeking funding for the crematorium was turned aside by a 267 to 1,530 vote.
In a report issued several weeks ago, Interim Assistant Town Administrator Robert Lawton found “errors were made, but nothing that rises to a major level,” adding “there was no intent to hide anything.” Lawton made a number of recommendations, including placing the project on the town's capital plan, establishing a pet burial grounds revolving fund for the sale of lots and developing a path to pay back the $70,000 from the cemetery revolving fund used in developing the pet cemetery.
Birch said he met with a group of people on Monday night and they are considering filing a petition for a special town meeting and presenting an article that would seek to have the land returned to the custody of the board of selectmen. The board would be directed to seek authorization from town meeting to sell the parcel.
“I'm not against it, but I'm against it there,” Birch said of his position on pet burial grounds.
He noted the value of the property given its location in a commercial/industrial zone and the price of sales of properties along Queen Anne Road, where Birch owns a landscaping business. He said two half-acre lots in the area have sold for $257,000 each, and a 2.2 acre parcel with a building on it is assessed for $1.7 million.
Birch said the town could sell the parcel in the $1 million range and get it back on the tax rolls. He estimated the land would generate about $15,000 in taxes annually, and with personnel property taxes and other assessments, he said it could raise closer to $20,000. He suggested taking the revenues from the sale of the property and putting one-third into affordable housing, a third into conservation and devoting a third to watershed protection.
“In my eyes the property should be used for private business and not a town business,” Birch said. “The town should not be in business to make money and create bigger government.”
He called the way the town handled the project a “travesty.” The project was not on the capital plan and was put together in “bits and pieces,” he said. The cemetery administrator and the town administrator should not have been serving as the general contractor, he added.
“It shouldn't have gone in the back door in bits and pieces. It was a hodgepodge mess,” Birch said. “We can't take human remains money and build a pet cemetery.”
Finance Director Carol Coppola said $70,280 from the cemetery revolving account was paid to vendors to do the work at the pet burial grounds. The largest payment went to Cape Cod Building Company for $34,036 for the creation of the pathway. T.W. Nickerson received $20,280 for stripping the lot and loaming and seeding it. A well was installed for $5,800 and the gazebo cost $4,900. Other costs included electrical work, water connections, a well cover and fencing repairs.
The board of selectmen and the finance committee have voted a transfer of funds in the amount of $70,280 to restore the money used from the cemetery revolving fund, $30,150 from the FY17 Group Health Insurance account and $40,130 from the FY18 Group Health Insurance account. Selectmen supported the transfer on a 3-2 vote and the finance committee on Thursday night voted 5-2 to make the transfer.
Town Clerk Anita Doucette said she issued the STM petition papers to Birch on July 10. Two hundred signatures from registered voters are required to call a special town meeting and it will require 100 signatures to place an article on the warrant. If the petition is returned, she said, the signatures will need to be certified and the petition presented to selectmen. The board has 45 days to call the session.
Doucette said she had not planned for a special town meeting in her budget for this year and she estimated a session will cost between $5,000 and $7,000. She will have to go to the finance committee for a reserve fund transfer, if the selectmen call a STM, she said.
Birch said the group is now examining whether there is enough support to bring people to a special town meeting to address the issue.