Cremation controversy heads to board of aldermen

Planning board votes 4-3 to recommend rezoning for Harwood Home for Funerals

Fred McCormick

A proposed rezoning amendment drew backlash from local residents and planning board members alike on Sept. 7, as a 4-3 vote sent the matter to the board of aldermen, which will hold a public hearing on Monday, Oct. 10.

If approved, the amendment will rezone 208 West State Street where Harwood Home for Funerals sits from the central business district to the highway business district, allowing the business to perform cremations on-site.

Harwood Home for Funerals is currently zoned in the central business district, while Asheville Savings Bank, directly across the street, is in highway business.

The town's land use code does not allow funeral homes to operate in the central business district, making Harwood a nonconforming use of the property. However, Black Mountain director of planning and development services Josh Harrold told the planning board the way the property is zoned is likely the result of a mistake.

"Staff in planning and development saw this as a mistake in either zoning or text," he said. "We had a conversation on text last month and there were some issues so we thought rezoning it would make more sense."

Rick Harwood addresses the planning board and members of the community during a Sept. 7 meeting.

The planning board voted 3-3 (Doug Brock absent) in August on an amendment that would have allowed funeral homes to operate in the central business district. Those opposed to the change expressed concerns over a potential influx of funeral homes to the area.

The town's land use code allows funeral homes to operate in the highway business district, which includes lots directly to the north and west of Harwood, according to zoning administrator Jennifer Tipton.

North Carolina General Statute 90-210.12 allows funeral homes to house crematories, which the funeral home's owner Rick Harwood said he intends to do if the amendment passes.

"Cremation is on the rise," Harwood told the planning board. "I'm trying to serve the families of this valley with the best service me and my family can offer, with the best equipment."

He added that he believes cremations could be the chosen option for as many as 75 percent of his clients by the 2030.

Planning board member Lisa Milton expressed concerns over the environmental implications of performing cremations in Harwood's current location.

"My opinion is that we have crematories permitted in heavy industrial district for very good reason," she said. "Because we don't have people living in those areas on a daily basis and they're not subjected to the sounds and the exhaust and the chemicals they can't see."

Harrold said the cities of Asheville and Marion, as well as Buncombe County, allow cremation at licensed funeral homes.

Harwood pointed to funeral homes in Asheville such as Groce Funeral Home on Tunnel Road and Asheville Mortuary Services on Thompson Street as examples of nearby locations that offer cremations on-site. Stanley Combs is the funeral director and general manager of Asheville Mortuary Services.

Combs said the emissions resulting from cremations can be profound, "typically at the start of cremations and only about 20 percent of the time."

He said emissions are an "unavoidable part of the process."

Another member of the planning board, Jesse Gardner, refocused the conversation on the zoning aspect of Harwood's request.

"We are a zoning board, I like to stick to zoning," Gardner said. "We've heard a lot of talk about funeral homes, which I'm in favor of, but the application is a rezoning application, which is a simple map change."

Citing the planning board's purpose as a "recommending board," Gardner made the motion to approve the amendment for consideration by the board of aldermen. Gardner, Doug Brock, Pam Norton and planning board chair Peter Vazquez voted in favor of making the recommendation.

Norton advised community members to express their concerns at the public hearing for the amendment, which was announced during the Sept. 12 aldermen meeting.

"I do have the same environmental concerns that a lot of you have," she said. "But I also look at the letter of the law and what my job is on this board. There is going to be a public hearing in October and that is the time that every one of you, even Rick, (should) come with the numbers to make your case."