Summit County committee recommends $160,000 for open space atop a ‘green cemetery’ near Oakley
Instead of headstones, land would bear trails that connect to local network
Sometimes a situation has it all: land conservation, hundreds of thousands of public dollars, a novel way to bury dead people, a relatively unscrutinized pool of money funded by a wealthy golf-course community, the specter of a housing subdivision and an A-list Hollywood celebrity.
A Wasatch Front funeral parlor is seeking to buy 15 acres near Oakley to create what’s known as a “green cemetery,” where people would be buried without modern adornments like embalming measures or concrete underground vaults.
The cemetery wouldn’t have headstones and the land would be almost immediately revegetated after a burial, with a planned trail network open for members of the public.
The Summit Land Conservancy would purchase a conservation easement on the land for $500,000 to preserve it from future development.
A rarely convened public body heard the presentation Thursday night, the Eastern Summit County Agriculture Preservation and Open Lands Advisory Committee, which is known as ESAP. ESAP is in charge of doling out county funds that are collected from lot sales in the Promontory luxury housing development.
When a Promontory lot is sold for the first time, the new owner must pay the county a fee that is used to preserve agriculture and open lands in eastern Summit County. The fee was included in a development agreement signed in 2001, and is tied to inflation. It started at $3,000 and is now $4,175.
The mechanism has collected millions of dollars since its inception and there remained about $830,000 in the fund before Thursday’s meeting. Much of the money has been used to help fund Summit Land Conservancy conservation easements, including $250,000 granted Thursday to a separate project, this one to protect 106 acres near Coalville. It was the ninth conservancy project ESAP has funded, according to the presentation.
The conservancy purchases and facilitates conservation easements, many of them in Summit County. A conservation easement in effect offers landowners money in exchange for agreeing not to develop their land. An entity, sometimes the land conservancy itself, purchases future development rights and holds an easement in perpetuity, ensuring the land remains free from development.
The conservancy is proposing just such an arrangement for the proposed green cemetery.
The land in question is east of Oakley on Boulderville Road near where it curves eastward and becomes Pinion Lane.
Starks Funeral Parlor would purchase the land and the conservancy would purchase a conservation easement from the business.
A Starks representative declined to comment or offer specifics about the plan, noting the preliminary nature of the discussions, but pointed to “green burial” online resources that indicate the process resembles ancestral burial techniques and more closely connects family members and loved ones to the final act of a body leaving the earth.
Cheryl Fox, the executive director of the Summit Land Conservancy, said in an interview that the land would serve as a publicly accessible sanctuary. The funeral parlor is proposing to build a structure to hold ceremonies, but otherwise desires the land to be held as open space.
Fox applied for $250,000 from ESAP, half the cost of the conservation easement.
“It’s unique, for sure,” said ESAP Chair Don Sargent.
The committee makes a recommendation to the Summit County manager, who is empowered to make the final funding decision. The committee voted to recommend $160,000 in funding, which is 10% of the $1.6 million purchase price for the land, the normal limit for ESAP transactions.
Committee members included a provision that County Manager Tom Fisher might increase that amount as he deems fit. Deputy County Manager Janna Young, who joined the meeting representing the manager’s office, said that the County Council supported the project, possibly indicating Fisher would fund it.
It is unclear whether members of the public will be able to comment on the proposal.
At Monday’s Board of Health meeting, former ESAP member and current Board of Health member Chris Ure issued his objection to the project, asking whether the Board of Health would have a say in whether the cemetery is approved.
He suggested the burial of human bodies might have negative environmental effects, especially so close to the Weber River, which is a crucial drinking water source.
“I could care less about burying people,” Ure said. “If they want to bury ’em, great, I have no issue with it. My issue is the water supply.”
Fox said her organization shares the same concerns and that experts were set to examine the land and determine whether it could support such a use. She said the project had applied for a conditional use permit from Summit County.
The funeral parlor and conservancy have until May 1 to complete their due diligence inspection of the site. Fox told the committee that the current landowner had not been willing to extend that timeline. The land is owned by prominent actress Katherine Heigl, and Fox said she had not communicated with Heigl about the project.
Fox presented the project as a crucial piece in a long-term plan to create a 5-mile trail along the Weber River in and near Oakley. The conservancy and other organizations have been working to acquire land and assemble pieces of the trail for years.
She said the land would be developed unless a deal like this one was struck.
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