Homer Township Cemetery Spurs Groundwater Concerns

By Nick Reiher

Christina Neitzke-Troike hadn’t yet been sworn in as the new Homer Glen mayor last month when she got a call from a friend who had heard about plans for a new cemetery near her subdivision.
The friend was concerned, she said, because the subdivision is one place in the village still on well and septic, and she wondered about groundwater contamination.
“She didn’t even say it was a Muslim cemetery,” said Neitzke-Troike. “And I don’t care that it is. I’m concerned about the health of my residents.”
Called The Muslim Cemetery on its website, the plan shows that ultimately 24,000 Muslims would be buried among 40 acres on Meader Road just north of Route 6. The land is in unincorporated Homer Township.
The group already has purchased the land and has received permits both from Will County Land Use and Homer Township road officials to do road work on the first 5 acres of the project. Work already has begun.
After receiving more calls and a petition from residents asking for the state to address the issue of groundwater around the cemetery, Neitzke-Troike called for a special town hall meeting May 2 to attempt to address some of the concerns.
More than 200 people jammed into Homer Glen Village Hall to get some answers. Neitzke-Troike invited county officials – Executive Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, David Dubois, Will County Land Use Director, Brian Radner, Land Use Director of Development Services, Sean Connors, Director of Environmental Health Services for the Will County Health Department, County Board Members Jim Richmond and Steve Balich, who also serves as Homer Township supervisor.
To help keep the meeting in hand, those with questions were asked to write them down on cards to be read. Some still shouted questions or responses at times, but Neitzke-Troike quickly gaveled them down.
Even before the issue of groundwater safety came up, residents – and the mayor – wanted to know how this project could be allowed in an area zoned for residential, and why weren’t they notified?
County officials explained that following the County Board’s change in zoning regulations in 2012, cemeteries are allowed in R-2 zoning, meaning no public hearing or notification was necessary.
Neitzke-Troike said later the residents and the village should have been notified by both the county and Homer Township as a courtesy. “If the situation were reversed, we would have let them know, even if we didn’t have to.”
Also on the dais was New Lenox Township Supervisor Cass Wennlund, who lives in the area and has practiced land use law for 30 years.
He urged residents to demand their County Board members seek a text amendment to the land use regulations that would restore public hearings and notification for all cemeteries. Land Use staff also can consider adding stipulations to any special use approvals, he said.
Also attending the meeting was County Board Member Frankie Pretzel, chair of the board’s Land Use Committee. He later had it added to the agenda for the May 9 meeting.
While any potential change would not affect the 5 acres already permitted and being developed, it is unclear whether it would affect the 35 acres already purchased that have not been permitted, or any land The Muslim Cemetery may purchase in the future.
Dubois cautioned the process could take a while if the committee and the board decided to go forward with the text amendment for new cemeteries in the county. A public hearing, with a 30-day notice, would need to be held by the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission.
Residents who attended were amazed to learn there is no entity to monitor or regulate groundwater around cemeteries routinely.
Connors said he researched the issue and found the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation certifies cemeteries with various regulations. But groundwater evaluation is not among them.
He noted the county Health Department offers private well testing for $25 and encouraged all residents to take advantage of that.
Legislators may be asked to change state regulations for cemeteries. Neitzke-Troike said later she is seeking to find how close residents on wells are to cemeteries locally, and then ask the same of other municipalities and townships.
The gorilla that only briefly peeked in the crowded room was the issue of racism.
A search of Muslim cemetery development nationwide resulted in stories from several areas where groundwater may have been the legal issue, but residents in those areas made it clear they did not want Muslims there, especially considering their burials involve bodies wrapped in cloth and set 6 to 6 ½ feet below ground on a bed of wood or stone.
Several of those asked after the meeting if racism were apparent in any form said they did not see or hear it.
The only time there was a reference to racism was from a member of the audience shouting during the meeting that this meeting wouldn’t be happening if there were Christian burials.
The person was quickly shouted down by other members of the audience. And Wennlund, who was speaking at the time, said he lives nearby with diverse neighbors who all get along.
The issue, he said, is putting a cemetery on residential land surrounded by rural roads with no opportunity for input by the county or the residents.
“It wouldn’t matter if it were Presbyterian, Methodist or Baptist,” Wennlund said. “It’s the same issue.”
Neitzke-Troike later doubled down on that sentiment.
“If the cemetery was there first, that’s one thing. But everyone built those homes there not expecting there to be a cemetery.”
Editor’s note: Farmers Weekly Review will update this story on its Facebook page following the May 9 Land Use meeting. That story will be in the May 18 print editions.

 

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