HARWICH — The cemetery commission this past week voted to return the 2.25 acre parcel that had been approved for a pet cemetery on Queen Anne Road to the board of selectmen. That action puts to rest the year-long battle among factions in town over whether a municipal government should be involved in such an enterprise.
There has been considerable debate about whether the town did due diligence in developing a business plan showing the value and use of 2.25 acres at 276 Queen Anne Rd., in the town’s industrial zone, where vacant land has a premium value. Estimates were the town could generate more than $1 million through the sale of the lot and whether that money could be used to purchase more open space or address affordable housing needs. At the recent annual town meeting, voters overwhelmingly endorsed turning the land back over to the selectmen.
Board of Selectmen Chairman Larry Ballantine said on Friday he would be putting the matter on an agenda so the board can discuss plans for the parcel.
“I appreciate the cemetery commission responding to the town meeting request,” Town Administrator Christopher Clark said on Friday. If a decision is made to sell the parcel, Clark said, the board will first have to decide there is no other municipal use. The approval of town meeting will be required to sell the land.
Town meeting in 2016 approved an article to use the land as a pet cemetery and crematorium. The town was given the Massachusetts Municipal Association Kenneth E. Pickard Municipal Innovation Award for innovation and increasing effectiveness of local government for the community services that a pet cemetery would provide.
The cemetery commission used funds from the cemetery revolving account to implement a pet cemetery. In spring 2018 protests began to build about the use of the land and a town meeting proposal seeking $577,950 to construct a pet crematory at the site. Voters turned down the funding request.
Before going into town meeting, town counsel had issued an opinion stating that the cemetery revolving account could not be used for a pet burial ground, only for purposes related to human burials. That helped fuel the argument against the pet cemetery project.
Voters in town meeting this May put an end to the project once and for all. A petitioned article led by resident Tom Birch was approved rescinding the 2016 vote transferring the 2.25 acres to the cemetery commission, directing its return to the board of selectmen. Voters also rejected the establishment of a pet burial ground revolving fund that would have provided funds for the project from the sale of lots. Voters also rejected an article that sought $131,000, of which $60,720 would be used for the completion of the pet cemetery and $70,280 to reimburse the cemetery revolving account for funds used in preparing and improving the burial grounds. The funds sought in that article were to come from the future sale of pet burial lots.
In order for the land to be transferred back to selectmen, the cemetery commission first had to vote that it no longer had use for the property and to return it to the board of selectmen. The commission did so last Tuesday. The vote effectuates the transfer of the land to the board of selectmen to be held for general municipal purposes, Town Counsel John Giorgio confirmed to the commission in an email.
As for the money already expended on the improvements there, he said, the $70,280 was reimbursed to the cemetery revolving account using free cash. The hope is the gazebo now in place can be sold.