Urgent challenge, Open a new cemetery
At the current rate of plot sales Westwood Cemetery will run out of plots in less than 3 years and Old Carrboro Cemetery will run out in less than 2 years. Chapel Hill stopped selling burial plots in 2016. But in Carrboro there could be a political problem with abruptly stopping the sale of burial plots in all cemeteries. First we need to limit the sales of our last plots to the remaining long term local families with the strongest community ties; this will provide the time needed to open a new cemetery.
Placing graves on the other side of the driveway will permanently remove the land used from being used for anything else. This land is not “free”. We have inherited this land as part of our Carrboro family’s legacy and we should spend it wisely. We owe it to future generations to maintain the flexibility of this tract into the future. Land does not need to “do” anything, it can merely exist!
Changing demographics, Not a zero-sum game
National preferences for the after-life dispositions of our mortal bodies are rapidly evolving, as are Carrboro’s demographics. When I arrived in 1987 there were still plenty of white Southerners who drove Chevys and Fords. Now we are mostly Hondas, Toyotas, and Subarus. The white plumbers and electricians who keep the UNC physical plant running have moved to Chatham and Alamance: follow the Trump signs! At this point the Southern open casket traditional burial culture may be mostly followed in Carrboro by our remaining long term local African-American families. Given the past mistreatments of these families by local governments some of our leaders may be reluctant to suddenly stop selling burial plots to the elders who helped to build this town.
But this is not a zero sum game. If we act quickly it should be possible to find a path forward that will provide a graceful and respectful winding-down of Westwood while providing plots in a new nearby cemetery. New cemeteries have always been located outside of town. Does anybody now wish that the Old Carrboro Cemetery (behind the Armadillo Grill) had been twice as large? No personnel or equipment are situated at a cemetery and so there would be no synergy to locating a new cemetery on Fidelity next to Westwood.
Open new cemetery asap in a rural setting for traditional burials
A real estate expert familiar with the creation of the Reformed Judea Congregation Cemetery on Jones Ferry says that 3 beautiful acres of land in a nearby rural setting, say on Damascus Church Road, could be bought for only $90,000. This would be next-to-nothing for Carrboro. The Judea Cemetery is just past Damascus Church Road and it is only 6 minutes from Davie & Fidelity. Many families (even those already represented in Westwood) might prefer a rural setting, especially if those plots were offered at a low price.
So little time is left that we cannot afford the luxury of debating at length what kind of cemetery facilities should be located where. Carrboro residents will never agree on how green burials should be practiced or on what should be done with ashes. Transplanted residents who are into that stuff will be able to fare on their own, and private services will be more flexible and accomodating than a public bureaucracy designed to pave streets. An 8 year old could have designed Westwood Cemetery. We don’t need a landscape architect, we only need 3 acres of land.
Just a little bit of logic …
A thought experiment: Suppose Carrboro owned such a rural new third cemetery and suppose the 5.5 acre open space on Fidelity Street was privately owned. Given the passages quoted from the 1st draft of the comprehensive plan, if that owner offered it at a good price then the Town would surely snap it up. Although I do not have any real estate expertise, here I will make a guesstimate for the sake of illustration: If the Fidelity tract was developed to the same density allowed as for the rest of this street (two bedroom condos) then the 3 acres in the meadow that the CVDA proposal would consume to double the cemetery might sell for $2,000,000 if it were privately owned. By acquiring 3 acres on Damascus Church for $90,000 the Town would essentially be acquiring (or “freeing-up”) the Fidelity meadow for a fraction of its value. This swap would yield a paper profit of $1,910,000!
The Town Council can’t have it both ways: It has just spent $150,000 on the Carrboro Connect process and recruited dozens of volunteers to donate thousand of hours to this effort. The conclusions of their work clearly indicate that 100% of the 5.5 open acres on Fidelity should not be permanently spent on expanding Westwood. For only $90,000 (which is $60,000 less than the cost of the process) the Council could both follow through on the comprehensive plan and largely accommodate the needs of our remaining long term local families. Here the imagined dollar savings is serving as a proxy for the functional values accruing to residents in the vicinity from the availability of the open space and its role in cooling and cleaning the air they breath. The value resulting from this land swap would be so large that it would justify the Town offering plots in the rural setting at half the cost of the remaining plots in the Westwood cemetery. When combined with the beauty of this rural setting many families would choose the new cemetery over Westwood. In this way satisfying the needs of both the neighbors and the remaining long time local families need not be a zero sum game.
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There is no obligation to expand Westwood cemetery
As is detailed in History, from 1989 until at least 2018 no Town official considered this land to be anything other than a too-rocky-for graves tract that was therefore available as their private piggy “land bank”for their pet project d’jour (and without timely notifications to the neighbors). Installing graves to the east of the cemetery driveway would be a rude surprise to the next door neighbors who purchased their condos in two complexes that were built 45 to 55 years ago.
In 2014 Chapel Hill faced a roughly analogous binary choice: At that time that town knew it would soon run out of plots in its Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery and there were still 9 open acres adjacent to it. But rather than expand their cemetery into those 9 acres, their council decided to rezone that open land to sell it for an affordable housing project. Their cemetery then stopped selling burial plots in 2016.
In contrast Carrboro has continued to sell plots to anyone, including nonresidents. The total sales of Westwood plots averaged 12 per year over the ten years from 2006 to 2015. During 2016, the year Chapel Hill ran out of room, Westwood sales doubled to 24. From 2017 onward Chapel Hill sold no plots and so Westwood sales doubled again: During 2017, 2018, and 2019 sales averaged 47 per year! As of September 30, 2021 the rate for 2020 and 2021 has risen to 65 plots per year with the advent of more intense advance sales in the Covid era. See this graph for a moving 3 year average of sales and another graph of the diminishing plots remaining in Westwood.
A graceful and respectful winding-down of Westwood
To obtain a winding-down of Westwood that is graceful and respectful toward our remaining long term local families we should begin by tightening up our eligibility rules: Stop selling plots to non-residents and permit only the purchaser of a plot to be buried there themselves. Cemetery Services could be transferred from the engineers in Public Works to the “people people” in Recreation & Parks. Ms. Anita McNair-Jones might be ideally situated to reach out to local ministers and funeral homes to learn about the burial preferences and needs of those families. Perhaps the remaining plots could be steered to the families with the strongest Westwood connections by selling them in blocks of 10 plots to local funeral homes, especially the Black-owned ones. Their funeral directors would be acquainted with the most deserving families. Local ministers might be familiar with churches in rural settings that have diminishing and aging congregations. Some of these churches might be willing to accept burials of Carrboro residents if subsidized by the Town. Carrboro owns land on Old NC-86 and has joint ownership of some land on Rogers Road. It is possible that some of the Black residents in the Rogers Road neighborhood might like having a new cemetery nearby.
Please don’t worsen our urban heat island
The preliminary draft of Carrboro Connects notes that extreme heat is the leading weather-related killer. Fidelity Street is already an urban heat island, starting on one end with Town Hall, the gym, and Inara Court. At the other end the pavement in the cemetery and in the Hillmont parking lot across the street (which is beneath some bedroom windows) contribute more heat. On the night of August 14 the surface temperature of one tombstone was still 96˚ at 12:30am, following an overall Carrboro high temperature of 96˚ that afternoon. The overall air temperature in town was 81˚ at 12:30am. So the tombstones contribute air heating in addition to the heating by the cemetery’s driveways. As noted on the UHI page the amount of this heating is nearly as much as the amount of heating created by the parking lots in front of the gym and next to Town Hall! Introducing more structures, pavement, and tombstones into the meadow will reduce its current cooling effect for Hillmont, 400 Davie Road, and the rest of Fidelity Street.
Don’t get bogged down in fashionable new after-life trends
Contemporary after-life practices are evolving so rapidly that it is unrealistic to expect a government bureaucracy to keep up with the trends. For example, the 2018 regulations for green burials in a Town cemetery were absurd and were not be accepted by the eco-freaks seeking green burials: the October 2018 report to the Council from Public Works on green burials notes that both a concrete liner and a concrete vault were required at each green gravesite! The combined cost of those was roughly $2500, not including the cost of the plot itself. Many or most of the people desiring cremations will be transplants. If they do not want their ashes scattered somewhere out of state, they would probably prefer a nearby rural setting over Westwood. Why should the Fidelity-Davie neighborhood be somehow obligated to host such new endeavors? It would make more sense to leave such new services to private businesses, or if it is deemed necessary for the Town to offer them, then they should be offered at a new cemetery that uses land that is not so precious to our community.
Questions to Consider
** Should the town remain in the cemetery business? If so, which services should it offer? As alternative practices evolve, would some services be better provided by private cemeteries?
** Is the Fidelity neighborhood obligated to host more graves just because a cemetery is already located there? Should Carrboro launch a new cemetery by using less-centrally located town-owned or by acquiring land in a rural setting?
** Most fundamentally: Should Carrboro’s future policy regarding cemeteries be decided solely by seven people without community education and discussion first taking place? These decisions have long term consequences.
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