Last Tuesday, in a first-reading vote, the Long Beach City Council passed a new ordinance governing how funeral businesses, including cemeteries, mortuaries and crematoriums, can operate.
If finalized next week, the Council decision to approve the new ordinance will– among other changes to the codes– mean that two funeral businesses with existing crematoriums will be allowed to continue to operate in north and central Long Beach, but it will, however, also deny the opportunity for a new funeral center in Belmont Heights to offer on-site cremation services. A nine-month moratorium on the businesses that deal with the remains of the dearly departed is scheduled to end later this year.
The most controversial aspect of the new ordinance deals with the cremation side of business.
The moratorium initiated earlier this year prohibited current funeral-service businesses from expanding in the city and held off allowing new businesses to begin operating to allow staff and city officials time to assess its regulations and potential health hazards.
Citing concerns that burning remains at high temperatures in furnaces so close to homes and schools would create a health risk and environmental pollution, some Long Beach residents have been speaking out against the Belmont Heights Funeral Center, which had proposed to retrofit its facility with a crematorium.
Located at 3501 E. 7th St., the center currently offers cremation services offsite in an Anaheim facility. The center doesn’t perform funeral services onsite, but it does offer viewing services, according to its general manager, Jonathon Polk. He said that bodies are not embalmed there, but they may be dressed at that location.
In an interview Tuesday, Polk acknowledged that residents had concerns about the potential health hazards associated with crematorium furnaces, but he pointed over to a gas station across the street and another gas station a few doors down. He said that there aren’t any studies that show that emissions from the crematorium furnaces are any more harmful than the pollution from gas stations on either side of the center. He added that he lives upstairs in the center’s building with his 5-year-old daughter.
“If it’s a big hazard to somebody’s health,” Polk asked, “do you think I would have her here?”
A report cited by the City’s Development Department said that there are chronic health hazards associated with crematorium operations, and the Planning Commission voted last month to support a recommendation which required new funeral and crematory businesses to go through an administrative-use permit process. New crematoriums would only be allowed in two industrial zones.
Gregory Bradley, executive director of Stricklin Snively Mortuary, also disputes the conclusions drawn by the Development Department’s report on the health risk. Although he declined an interview this week, Bradley sent a statement that described what he told City officials to reassure them that his operation posed no danger to the community.
“We basically explained that some of the information in the Department of Development Services’ Recommendation Report does not accurately reflect our crematory operation,” he said in his e-mailed statement. “For example, the report’s recommendations to amortize certain crematoriums are based on, among other things, that crematoriums operate for 15 hours per day, 365 days per year. The total amount of time we operate our crematory is exponentially less. We rarely operate on weekends, are closed on holidays and do not operate for 15 hours in a single day.”
Located at 1952 Long Beach Blvd., Stricklin Snively Mortuary has been operating in the City since 1915 and has offered on-site cremation services since 1983, according to Bradley. This mortuary, along with another competing business, Simpson’s Family Mortuary, located at 5443 Long Beach Blvd., are the only two businesses that offer on-site cremation services in the city.
Originally, the City’s Planning Commission had recommended in September to allow cremation services only in certain industrial zones. It had also recommended a distance requirement for these businesses to operate at least 600 feet away from residences and schools. The two existing funeral homes with crematoriums did not meet this distance requirement, and the Planning Commission recommended an amortization clause in the ordinance, essentially requiring them to comply with the new regulations in 10 years. The new rules would have required Stricklin Snively and Simpson’s Family Mortuaries to shut down the crematories altogether by 2023.
Bradley staunchly opposed this possibility.
“There simply is no evidence that the operation of Stricklin Snively’s crematorium poses any health risk to the public whatsoever,” Bradley wrote. “And, therefore, the proposed amortization of the facility is not appropriate.”
Third District Councilmember Gary DeLong agreed. He recommended to remove that key amortization clause in the ordinance at the Oct. 15 Council meeting. The Council agreed to the change and voted 8-0 to pass the modified ordinance. Second District Councilmember Suja Lowenthal was absent from the vote. No members of the public commented on the ordinance modification, and little discussion was made about the key change that would essentially give Stricklin Snively and Simpson’s Family Mortuaries an edge over any competitors in city with more than 461,000 residents. Under this change, new competitors will be required to follow the administrative-use permit process and locate their crematoriums in the designated industrial areas.
There are only four cemeteries in the city, and Polk says that cremation is becoming a more popular choice for families due to its affordability. The Belmont Heights Funeral Center’s general manager did not understand the logic behind offering an advantage to the two funeral homes that had crematorium furnaces in residential areas.
“You won’t let us have one furnace in this part of town,” Polk said of his proposed operation in Belmont Heights. During an interview before the Council meeting, he specifically blasted the City’s willingness to allow Stricklin Snively to operate in a poorer urban neighborhood if the City claims there is any health risk. “So what’s the difference?” he asked. “Are you saying people over here are better than the people over there? The quality of their life [is] better over here than the quality of their life over there? That makes no sense to me.”
DeLong explained in a phone interview Wednesday his reasons for the change to the ordinance, which effectively protected the businesses that had been established. The 3rd-district councilmember says that there were residents from the neighborhood association for the Cambodian community who said they supported Stricklin Snively’s businesses. He also noted the Belmont Heights residents in his district who strongly opposed a new crematorium because it was moving into an established residential community.
“Residents did not want crematoriums so close to their homes,” DeLong said, “and particularly they didn’t want new ones that close to their home. But we currently grandfather in existing businesses unless there’s a reason not to, and we didn’t hear from anybody in the community around that mortuary crematorium [Stricklin Snively] that said that they felt that it would negatively impact their quality of life, so…there’s no reason to put them out of business in 10 years. They were providing a service that the community was taking advantage of.”
Addressing the potential risk if the City allowed any crematoriums to operate near homes and schools, DeLong added that he didn’t think the evidence absolutely determines crematoriums are really a health hazard.
“We might learn that they are perfectly compatible,” DeLong said. “We might learn that they are not. At this point, I don’t think the evidence is clear either way.”
Douglas Domingo-Forasté, a Belmont Heights resident who lives about five blocks away from the center, said that he isn’t opposed to a funeral home in his neighborhood. The professor of classics at California State University Long Beach also isn’t opposed to having crematoriums in the city either, but he acknowledged that there is another aspect to the pollution issue.
“I didn’t think it was right to export our pollution to other poorer cities,” Domingo-Forasté said in a Monday phone interview, “but I did want our crematoriums to be located away from residential areas and schools.”
Belmont Heights resident William Snipes lives next door to the funeral center at the heart of the debate. In an interview at his home, Snipes acknowledged his personal ongoing tension with the funeral-center operators. He criticized the operation’s current protocol whereby residents and kids can see the remains transported to and from the center. He is also concerned about a more practical element of living close to this funeral home.
He tried to sell his house last year, he said, but on the last day of escrow closing, the buyer withdrew her offer when she saw that there was a body transported into the funeral home.
“This is not about dead bodies,” Snipes said. “It’s about the value of my house.”
Polk acknowledges that there are problems with his next-door neighbor. He and the center’s owner say that they will look elsewhere to build a crematorium and that they will keep the funeral center at its current location. While the proposed ordinance will allow crematoriums to operate in some industrial zones, Polk says that most funeral homes and cremation businesses operate in residential areas. He half-jokingly offered one possibility for a new crematorium location– Signal Hill.
The ordinance still needs to be passed in a second reading scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 22.