Nearly 60 residents convened at Peace Lutheran Church Monday evening to voice concerns about a potential columbarium at the church's memorial garden. Set north of PLC's labyrinth across from its preschool, the columbarium will be a space for the public storage of cinerary urns.
"The design is simply a wall, which will have either plaques with the names of loved ones who have passed," said Pastor Steve Harms. " It's a place for families and loved ones to gather to reflect to appreciate the memories, and it's a place of healing. The honoring of the dead and the loved ones who are mourning is a sacred responsibility for all faith communities and religious traditions."
The 6-foot wall will have six square openings with 66 niches and each niche can hold two urns. At capacity, the columbarium could hold 264 remains and memorial plaques. Set below a natural burm, Peace Lutheran officials assured concerned residents that the wall would not be visible from the north side of Old Blackhawk Road. The church is located at 3201 Camino Tassajara.
Still, in an informal poll, nearly everyone in attendance was not in favor of the neighborhood columbarium. Many cited aesthetic, financial and safety concerns as reasons why the wall -- which was often referred to as a cemetery or "death wall" during the meeting -- is a bad fit for the neighborhood.
"I plead to your heart and sensibility, it's not the right thing," said one resident. "This is a great place in every aspect, and I questioned the church, but I thought it was a good thing. Now you're going beyond the bounds."
Several attendees, including 17-year Danville resident Larry Geiger, said they were frustrated that Peace Lutheran had overstepped the bounds of its original single-use facility. Many said the addition of a columbarium would decrease the value of their homes.
"Such a facility will deleteriously impact the 'peaceful enjoyment of my property' not to mention the potential for dramatic lose (sic) in property values of the entire Terraces community," Geiger wrote in a letter to the town of Danville.
A Real Estate agent confirmed Geiger's fears during the open forum meeting, with one stating that the value of a home near a cemetery can decrease $100,000. A second Realtor added that many people moving to the area have differing cultural beliefs that prevent them from living near cemeteries or like institutions.
Another Terraces resident said part of his family would be unable to visit him at is home because of his proximity to the columbarium.
"This will damage a lot of people here in a way that isn't visible to you," a resident told Rich Collins, a church and memorial garden committee member who ran the presentation.
Potentially unsightly damages such as vandalism, as well as youth loitering, were also mentioned as concerns. A large wall offset from the street would be an attractive place for kids to drink or smoke, said a resident and former police officer.
Meant to be a low-cost alternative to a traditional burial, the columbarium would be open to PLC members as well as those from other faith communities and is part of the church's caring ministry "from womb to tomb," Harms said. The wall would cost approximately $100,000 to build with interments averaging $2,200.
Collins noted that the church is not trying to profit from the columbarium and would charge just above cost to allow for wall maintenance. He added that St. Timothy's Episcopal Church on Diablo Road also has a columbarium since 1995, though theirs is only open to congregation members.
Neil Matsunaga, a St. Timothy's parishioner and member of the committee that operates its columbarium, said the church's structure was built in conjunction with a new administration building. He was not aware of any neighbors who expressed concerns about the columbarium, which has space for 700 urns and approximately 1/8 of those spaces are occupied.
Peace Lutheran officials have presented the columbarium plan to Danville planners who encouraged PLC to bring the topic to their neighbors; most congregation members do not live in the immediate vicinity of the church. According to Principal Planner David Crompton, the columbarium falls under the definition of a cemetery, which is potentially allowed in most zoning districts, subject to a land use permit.
"We need to look at them on a case by case basis to see if the proposed location is a proper use," he said, adding that the structure would require approval by the Planning Commission, which would conduct a public hearing.
The columbarium is not on the Commission's schedule, though the town first received the columbarium plans three to four weeks ago.
Collins said he was unsure how the church would proceed, given the resounding disapproval from neighboring residents. Many in attendance said they would be fine with a memorial garden of flowers and plaques.