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A sacred trust or a travesty?
The fate of a proposed columbarium in a residential area of the city will be decided by Tallmadge City Council later this month. On May 4, the Planning and Zoning Commission voted to recommend that Council reject a conditional zoning application request by the First Congregational Church of Tallmadge, UCC; approval of that application is a prerequisite before the church may begin construction of a 100-niche columbarium to serve its congregation on its 7.97-acres at 85 Heritage Drive.
Many residents who live near the church say the proposed structure would be out of place and would adversely affect their property values. "Stay out of the cemetery business" was the prevailing sentiment of many who spoke. "How will you market the city to prospective taxpaying citizens who want to come here?" Kent Road resident Carlo Maltempi asked. "Come to our fair city. It's a beautiful place to raise your children. We have great schools here and, by the way, for your convenience, there's a cemetery in every neighborhood?"
The Rev. Dr. John M. Schluep, senior pastor at the church, says, "First Congregational Church of Tallmadge, UCC, understands its mission to be an arch of spiritual and temporal care from birth through life and death for our members and friends." A member of the congregation, Gary Rambler, said he would have preferred to place his wife's cremains at the church when she died, suggesting that option would have afforded him an additional avenue of consolation.
Tallmadge's Planning & Zoning Commission conducted a second public hearing on the proposal May 4. Noting First Congregational is the first church in Tallmadge to pursue a columbarium on its grounds, Commission member Patrick Larson described the decision before the body as "uncharted territory." As the rate of cremation rises, the use of columbaria may increase, too, he said, becoming a trend among churches. Mayor Dave Kline observed the city's cemetery, 46 North Ave., is out of space for in-ground burials; that's why the decision was made to install a columbarium there, Kline reported.
"At this point, with this request, I would not be in favor of us approving it," Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman Gerald Taylor said, "based on us not having enough information for standards the city needs to sit down with a planner and decide what standards we'd have if we would approve these in the future."
Taylor said he didn't know the timeline the church was hoping to meet in constructing the columbarium; however, he suggested First Congregational officials could come back to the city with the columbarium request once standards are in place. The Rev. Dr. John M. Schluep, senior pastor at the church, told the Tallmadge Express on May 10 he has no plans to withdraw or revise the plans; however, Schluep said he does intend to suggest the city research and adopt qualifications for churches interested in installing columbaria in the future.
First Congregational Church started exploring the possibility of adding a columbarium and memorial garden about three years ago. As proposed, the garden would be located in the central courtyard of the church, which is enclosed on three sides. Schluep says the plan is to landscape the open end of the courtyard with trees and shrubs to prohibit line-of-sight vision from Heritage Drive. Eighteen to 24 months ago, church officials invited nearby property owners to a meeting about what it was envisioned. Feedback from that meeting led the church to alter its original idea of locating the memorial garden in the west side yard, according to Schluep.
The senior pastor said two-thirds of the congregation voted in favor of moving forward with the memorial garden and columbarium project in January. Following a public hearing on April 6 which was dominated by church neighbors' opposition, Schluep said a meeting was scheduled with them later in the month to discuss the issues which had been raised. Representatives of five families attended, according to the pastor. Melanie Wasson, who lives next door to the church, said she did not go to the meeting because she doesn't think church members are receptive to neighbors' concerns about the proposed structure. "Our neighbors do not want it [the columbarium]," Wasson said, adding, "I think it is unwarranted I just don't think that it needs to be in my backyard." She suggested First Congregational members could make use of the columbarium in the Tallmadge City Cemetery, which is located less than 1 mile from the proposed addition to the church courtyard.
Church member Roberta Lewis of Garwood Drive, a long-time member of the church, described funeral and burial arrangements as being a very personal decision. Lewis also said more than 100 letters were sent to homes within 500 feet of the church and she reported that only 30 homes were represented by signatures on petitions against the columbarium proposal. "We will never agree on everything," Lewis said, "however, the majority in this case has quietly spoken."
"We do not want a columbarium -- a graveyard -- in our established neighborhood," Diane Ritzert, a 22-year resident of Minwood Avenue said. "The moment you put human remains into the columbarium, it becomes a graveyard, which will affect our property values I do believe that the members of the church have a right to enhance their religious environment; but when their decisions affect the property values in the neighborhood in which we live, a compromise must be developed."
Schluep said the church has been attempting to find a solution that meets its needs, while remaining on a harmonious footing with the community. The Rev. David Kiewit, a long-time Tallmadge resident who's retired from ministry and has been a member of the First Congregational Church for eight years, said the neighbors' opposition to the columbarium proposal as reported in the Tallmadge Express had come to the "unsolicited attention of an out-of-state law firm whose legal niche is litigating First Amendment cases, specifically religious freedom activities." According to Kiewet, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 is a federal law which bars state and local governments from using their zoning codes to discriminate against religious institutions. "We will not be litigating," Schluep told the Express May 10, "as I would see that as unproductive and unnecessary."
Council is expected to act on the request at its May 25 meeting.
Twitter: @ EllinWalsh_RPC