By John Burton
OCEANPORT – Borough officials are fuming over a proposal to build a crematory at a cemetery in town and that they likely have little say in the matter.
“It is the burning of human remains, the odor, etcetera, that might be associated with that. It’s essentially something you shouldn’t have to worry about in a residential neighborhood,” said Mayor Michael Mahon about plans seeking to operate a crematory at the 22-acre Woodbine Cemetery on Maple Avenue.
Mahon said a 2011 law appears to give the authority for approval of such a facility on the state level and for the most part eliminating local officials’ and residents’ input from the process. The approval process “does not favor the municipality at all,” Mahon said.
Woodbine Cemetery has applied to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), seeking an air pollution control permit to construct and operate a crematory at the cemetery.
Local officials said they only became aware of the cemetery’s plan by way of a courtesy letter they received last week from the DEP informing them Woodbine was seeking the department’s approval.
In an email blast message last week, the Oceanport Borough Council voiced its concern about the proposal and the approval process. In no uncertain terms, the council stated in its email: “Your entire Governing Body will take whatever steps permitted under law to stop this invasion into a prime residential section of our town. Smokestacks do not belong in residential neighborhood and we are opposed to this attempt.”
The message continued by maintaining the borough did not receive sufficient notice “to allow the residents of Oceanport to be heard on an issue that concerns many of them.”
Mahon said, “To place it in close proximity to a neighbor who is literally a side yard setback away, really is something, if I lived there, I would be concerned about.” The mayor raised the specter of the unknowns, involving health and environmental considerations, as well as impacting the quality of life on a residential area. “And that really goes to the construction of a smokestack,” he said.
“It’s essentially a quality of life issue,” Mahon said.
That was on the mind of Heather Tobias, who lives on Maple Avenue with her husband and four young children, a short distance from the cemetery and mausoleums.
“It’s the health risk … It’s going to be right behind here,” she said pointing to her backyard.
“I’m sure all that ash will be falling on my kids’ swings.”
Calls to Woodbine Cemetery and its president,Greg Kunkowski, this week were not returned by press time Wednesday.
Lawrence Hajna, a DEP spokesman noted, “Traditionally, most of these are in residential areas. There’s nothing unusual about that.”
As to health and safety considerations, he said, “The equipment that is used meets very high standards for efficiency and protecting the environment.”
Officials expressed their pique over the process, noting along with no official notice directly to the community or government, the cemetery and DEP relied on a public notice advertisement soliciting public comment on the permit application in the Home News Tribune, Somerville, a newspaper covering Middlesex County and Franklin Township.
That newspaper, Mahon complained, “has no circulation in this area, perhaps not even in the (Monmouth) county.”
The Home News Tribune “is a paper we routinely use for Central Jersey,” Hajna said, adding the notice was on the DEP’s website and the department notified the mayor’s office.
The crematory plans will have to pass muster with the DEP and the state Department of Health. The DEP is in the process of evaluating the application, taking into consideration public comments, Hajna said.
The DEP so far has received two comments, he said.
Ultimately, the decision for non-denominational cemeteries rests with the New Jersey Cemetery Board, one of about 40 boards overseen by the state Division of Consumer Affairs, said Jeff Lamm, a division spokesman.
Woodbine has not submitted an application to the board, Lamm said. Should it, “This is a public process,” and “certainly there is public input” and an opportunity for the public be heard, he said.
Woodbine sought approval for a crematory before. In 2001, it had tried to win approval from the borough planning board and faced fierce opposition from area residents.
At the time, the local board could only render a decision on the application’s site plan, with the state making the final decision. But then state Senate President John Bennett III sponsored a bill that would have municipal government approval necessary on these facilities. Bennett, who is also a retired municipal attorney and now Oceanport administrator, signed the bill into law in January 2002, while serving as acting governor.
The Woodbine proposal went nowhere given the council’s opposition to it, Bennett said.
The 2011 law reverts responsibility back to the state level, Bennett said this week.
State Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, who represents Oceanport, said he would review the law. “We’re going to look at it all and see where we can influence the process.”
The borough council, in addition to offering a written objection to the plan, is also seeking a public hearing to be held in Oceanport, Mahon said.