Merchants and residents oppose allowing crematory

Town to address the zoning aspect of funeral home's request

Fred McCormick,

A group of Black Mountain residents and business owners on Monday, Oct. 10 will ask town aldermen to oppose a crematory in town, but the issue before the board leaves it little room to alter the funeral home's plans.

At the public hearing, the group - The Merchant and Resident Coalition to Preserve Our Town - is expected to argue that Harwood Home for Funerals will harm the town's character by adding a crematory to its West State Street business.

Harwood Home for Funeral's zoning request has many residents objecting to the business's adding a crematory.

The issue before the Black Mountain Board of Aldermen, however, is a simple rezoning request that won't affect owner Rick Harwood's right to install a crematory incinerator, town manager Matt Settlemyer said. Both the funeral home's current and requested zoning classifications permit crematories, he said.

That won't stop The Merchant and Resident Coalition to Preserve Our Town, an organization with about 30 members, from speaking out against the crematory, said group representative Charlie Sparks, who lives less than a block away from the funeral home.

“It’s all about location,” he said. “We’re just saying that downtown, with the proximity to businesses and restaurants, is an inappropriate location for a crematory.”

The funeral home's lot at the corner of West State and North Dougherty streets is on the westernmost border of town’s central business district. Funeral homes are not a permitted use in the district but are allowed in the highway business district, which begins directly across North Dougherty Street from Harwood Home for Funerals.

Rick Harwood, the owner of the funeral home, has asked the town to rezone his property to the highway business district zoning, a classification that would allow him to build an addition to his building. Town planning and development director Josh Harrold told the planning board in September that his department believes the funeral home's central business district zoning is "a mistake in either zoning or text." 

Harwood's request was opposed by some members of the town planning board when they learned he planned to put a crematory in the additional space.

Planning board member Lisa Milton expressed concerns about the potential environmental impact that cremations could have on the area. Nonetheless, the board voted to recommend rezoning the lot in the highway business district, 4-3. 

The citizens coalition will ask aldermen to find a way to prohibit the funeral home from performing cremations at the Harwood site, Sparks said.

“This is an issue in other municipalities,” Sparks said. “The state statute says (Harwood Home for Funerals) 'may' put in a crematorium, which means there’s still room for regulation on the local level.”

As far as the town is concerned, the issue surrounding Harwood’s request is strictly about zoning, town manager Matt Settlemyer said.

“Under North Carolina general statute, a funeral home can have a crematory in any commercial district, which would include our central business district," he said. "The question of the crematorium is actually independent of whether or not the funeral home is zoned central business or highway business.”

Harwood is simply asking to alter the footprint of the building, Settlemyer said.

“He needs to be in a legally conforming use (to add on), which is what he would be in if he was located in highway business,” Settlemyer said. “He can add a crematory either way, but the rezoning has to do with how he will configure his building.”

Sparks and the coalition are concerned that the crematory's location could impact businesses and residents. "We have a view of the uniqueness of the character of this town,” he said. “We think this could spoil that character.”

The coalition is also concerned about the environmental ramifications of emissions from a cremation machine. A press release from the group mentions concerns about smell, sound and smoke being seen from the machine's smokestack.

Cremation incinerators require air quality permits from Buncombe County, said Ashley Featherstone, the permitting program manager for the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency.

“Permits are issued on an eight-year cycle,” she said via email. “There are annual reporting requirements used to track emissions. We inspect the units every other year, and we also respond to complaints to determine if they are in compliance."

The agency oversees nine crematories - two of which handle pet cremations - within the Asheville city limits. A crematory's equipment is subject to state regulations that cover air pollution and toxic air pollutant emissions, as well as visible emissions, Featherstone  said.

Harwood said in a recent interview that adding a crematory is essential to the growth of his business and that he has received the support of several nearby merchants. 

"When this machine comes in, I or anyone on my staff will not touch it at first," he said. "There is training that we have to have before we can even begin operating it."

He noted that funeral homes are regulated by the N.C. Board of Funeral Service and are subject to strict rules.

"I am a professional," he said. "I've been in this business for 43 years."