HARWICH — Officials and citizens expressed mixed opinions about the town moving ahead with a pet burial ground on town-owned land during an update provided to selectmen on the project proposed by the cemetery commission.
The pet burial ground and the future plan for the placement of a crematory on the 2.25-acre parcel on Queen Anne Road has fervent proponents and opponents, as was on display during the presentation last week by Cemetery Administrator Robbin Kelley.
Kelley said many people have asked her if the ashes of their pets can be buried with them in Harwich cemeteries. Town regulations, based on state law, does not allow such burials, she said. The pet burial ground grew out of her search for alternative options.
There are nearly 20,000 registered dogs on the Cape, and Kelley said she has more than 200 people waiting to purchase lots in pet burial ground. Many of those people have cremated dogs, cats and even a horse. Dog officers on Cape Cod have requested to establish a K-9 burial memorial. She said there are seven K-9 dogs that have been cremated and are waiting to be interred there.
She said people used to take pet ashes to a burial ground in Boston, but that burial ground is full and is no longer accepting cremated pets.
Kelley said the proposed 2.25 acres pet cemetery was taken by eminent domain in 1997 for open space or other municipal purposes. There were two attempts to sell the town-owned land in the 2006 and 2007 town meetings, but the parcel was deleted from both articles. In 2016, town meeting approved an article by a two-thirds majority transferring the land to the cemetery commission for the development of a pet crematory and pet cemetery.
Phase one would involve developing 9 percent of the grounds, developing double and single lots and memorial bricks around the walkway, including two sections of grave sites. She estimated $270,875 will be raised, and with 70 percent of the site developed the burial ground would generate $2,022,777.
The numbers didn't sway some.
“I'm unalterably opposed to doing this,” said Selectman Donald Howell.
He said there was no money appropriated for the project, but $70,000 has been spent in laying out the grounds, which includes sections of walkways and a gazebo. He pointed out the project was not on the town's capital plan and said it is not critical to municipal operations.
Howell also challenged the legality of the transfer based on the 104-38 vote, questioning the presence of a town meeting quorum, which is 150 voters. There were also questions about the right of a cemetery commission to oversee a pet burial ground. The money used to start the project came from cemetery funds, but town counsel determined the funds are for burials of humans, not for a pet burial ground.
Town Administrator Christopher Clark said the plan is to do the pet burial ground this year and do a crematory later. To rectify the improper use of the cemetery funds, an article will be filed for town meeting to establish a revolving fund for the use of revenues generated from the sale of lots in the pet burial ground. Once the fund is established, Clark said, the $74,000 spent to date in shaping the burial grounds will be returned to the cemetery fund and an additional $57,000 would be used to complete the work.
Addressing the decision by the cemetery commission to pursue the pet burial grounds, Clark said state law is silent on pet burial grounds. He said the town can decide whether the commission can have that authority, with the final decision up to town meeting.
Selectman Ed McManus said he had a discussion about the law with Town Counsel John Giorgio, who said the law doesn't say the cemetery commission can't take on additional responsibilities. McManus said he has no problem with the commission's involvement with the pet burial ground.
Cited several very costly projects facing the taxpayers, including the school budget and wastewater project, Howell called the pet cemetery “frivolous.”
Selectman Michael MacAskill said the town is looking at a $70 million budget and additional costs associated with debt exclusion articles, yet all the talk is about $57,000.
The topic drew a crowd. Vicki Windle said she supports the project, saying people can't just bury pets in the backyard.
“I thought I could bury my pets with me and found out I can't,” Pamela Kendall said. “There is a huge need for this.”
Kendall said she has the ash remains of six German shepherds and did not want to bury them in her yard, fearing contaminating her well. Kendall said she has talked to pet trainers and she belongs to various German shepherd organizations, and people want this option.
Brian Paradee said pet remains can be buried in a private yard and they are not a contaminant. He also challenged the 104 affirmative votes on the article in 2016 as not being representative of the will of the community. He said the ballot question seeking funding for the crematory, which was rendered moot by town meeting's indefinite postponement, was rejected by more than 1,200 votes, a more appropriate measure of community support.
Paradee said taxpayers own the land, not the cemetery commission. He said the property has an assessment of $800,000 to $1 million, and it could be subdivided into quarter acre lots and sold, generating $2 million. The town should be looking at selling the property and using the money for affordable housing or to purchase conservation land. He suggested it will take 109 years to generate the $2 million from burial ground lot sales. He also said there are no expenses included in the revenue estimate provided by the commission.
Tom Birch pointed out there were two quarter-acre lots sold along Queen Anne Road for $257,000 and $252,000, adding the owners are paying taxes annually on those lots.
“I don't see the need,” said Art Bodin, adding that if the numbers provided by Kelley are accurate, the private sector would jumped in to run the business. Bodin did say he is not totally against it, but he has concerns about what's behind it, especially a crematory.
Kelley said there is very little expense associated with the project, pointing out vendors do the burials, not town staff, and there are several companies in line to do memorial stones. She said the work will add to private sector employment.
“We're not going to need more man hours,” Kelley said of town staffing.
But Paradee questioned who would pay up to $500 for the various fees and costs to bury a pet there.
“I'd pay $1,000,” MacAskill responded.
Elizabeth Kennedy said it is important to have a place to go and visit deceased pets. She said burying them in the yard is not the answer because people sell homes and move on.
“This presentation sounds like a business plan I put together as a kid,” Matt Sutphin said. “This is totally illogical. You can find some ground on the highway department. There's plenty of land and out there. You are peering down a very small hole.”
Birch protested the handling of the project and the absence of compliance with the charter relating to capital planning. He also questioned why the project had not been brought to the planning board.
“Why was it allowed to happen the way it did?” Birch said. “You're taking a $1 million asset and turning it into an expense.”
“I'm comfortable with the idea of a pet cemetery, Robbin did a good job, but we should be dealing with what we need,” said Robert Piantedosi.
At the end of the session, MacAskill referred to the 1997 taking of the land for “open space and municipal use” and requested the board pursue a legal opinion on what that means. He later said the language does not give the town the right to sell that land.