Special Use May Return for New Cemeteries

By Nick Reiher

Some Homer Township residents were surprised when they learned a cemetery was being built in their residential area.

They don’t want that to happen again, and some County Board members agree.

The board’s Land Use and Development Committee on May 9 voted to recommend a change that would require a special use to develop a new cemetery. Special use would mean the county would have to hold hearings on the proposal and, if recommended, require one or more conditions.

That had been the case until 2012 when the County Board overhauled its zoning regulations. No one seems to remember why the new rule allowed cemeteries to be built without special use in most zoning classifications.

That includes R-2 residential, the zoning for the 40 acres purchased by The Muslim Cemetery ultimately to develop 24,000 gravesites on Meader Road just north of Route 6.

Because a cemetery is a permitted use there, the county’s Land Use Department was able to issue building permits for the first 5 acres of the plan to officials from The Muslim Cemetery without needing to notify residents around the development and without any input from them or neighboring municipalities or townships.

As word got out, Homer Glen Mayor Christina Neitzke-Troike called a town hall meeting May 2 where more than 200 people attended to share their concerns, focusing mostly on the lack of notification and concerned about groundwater, since those village residents near the cemetery are on well and septic.

They also were concerned because the Muslim tradition does not preserve the bodies with chemicals or use caskets and concrete vaults.

The county officials on the dais that evening had few answers, since no one could remember the last time a new cemetery was created in the county.

New Lenox Township Supervisor Cass Wennlund, who lives in the area and has practiced land use law for 30 years, 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.

Among those attending was County Board Member Frankie Pretzel, R-New Lenox, chair of the board’s Land Use Committee. After some discussion, he was able to place the discussion of a text amendment for new cemeteries on the May 9 agenda.

After sitting through three hours of other Land Use business, 20 Homer Township residents who attended heard David Dubois, Will County Land Use Director, tell the committee members no one was notified because the cemetery was a permitted use in R-2.

Further, he said, the Land Use Department does not have jurisdiction over groundwater; only zoning, construction and engineering. If a special use were required, he added, sometimes staff will confer with other agencies on issues that could need special conditions.

Dubois said he didn’t know if the Will County Health Department could get involved. But at the May 2 meeting in Homer Glen, Sean Connors, Director of Environmental Health Services for the Will County Health Department, said the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation certifies cemeteries with various regulations. But groundwater evaluation is not among them.

Connors noted the county Health Department does not regularly test groundwater throughout the county, but they offer private well testing for $25 and encouraged all residents to take advantage of that.

Board Member Julie Berkowicz, R-Naperville, urge the committee to ban cemeteries in all residential areas. But Board Member Steve Balich, R-Homer Glen, also Homer Township Supervisor, said that could violate a federal law.

“I don’t want to prevent someone from building a cemetery,” Pretzel said. “I want us to have the opportunity to ask the right questions.”

Board members and the public will have a chance to do that at the June Land Use Committee meeting. A hearing on the text amendment approved by the committee will be held then.

Board Chair Judy Ogalla, R-Monee, said the time also will allow board members to gather more information on the issue, including how other counties regulate cemeteries.

 

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