Seawinds crematory expansion plans could face court challenge

SEBASTIAN – The Seawinds Funeral Home and Crematory survived an appeal to the Sebastian City Council Monday evening but the fight over more space and a second furnace might not be over.

Resident and businessman Damien Gilliams brought the appeal – the second one the funeral home has defended against – arguing that the doubling of the furnaces and more than doubling of the crematorium’s space would negatively impact the community’s health, safety and welfare.

All but one city council member disagreed with Gilliams.

Gilliams’ attorney, Kim Rezanka, said after the 4-1 vote to deny the appeal that she and Gilliams would review what happened during Monday’s hearing and decide what to do from there.

One of their options is to file an appeal to the Circuit Court within 30 days.

Seawinds Funeral Home would prefer that route not be taken.

“Hopefully we won’t have to go to court,” Seawinds’ attorney Buck Vocelle said during his portion of the hearing.

With the additional furnace, Seawinds Funeral Home and Crematory Director James Young told the council he estimates the business would dispose of as many as 1,100 bodies – based on his market share and demand for services.

However, the business has the right to operate 24 hours daily, except Wednesdays when the funeral home has agreed not to run the furnaces for four hours while the Elks Lodge hosts bingo.

Councilman Eugene Wolff, who voted against denying the appeal, warned the council prior to the vote that while Seawinds expects to only dispose of 1,100 bodies, there is nothing stopping another funeral home company from buying out Seawinds and ramping up disposals.

He estimated that at maximum capacity, there could be 6,000-plus cremations on-site during the course of a year.

The funeral home has the right to rebuild the originally approved 480-square-foot crematory with its single furnace, according to both City Attorney Robert Ginsburg and Growth Management Director Rebecca Grohall.

The crematory burned down in November 2009 when flames escaped the furnace and traveled up through the chimney and to the roof.

Also, Seawinds could expand the building by as much as 500 square feet without being required to go to the city’s planning and zoning board for approval. Instead, city staff could have administratively approved the expansion.

“Certainly the expansion is not a given,” Wolff said.

Vocelle said he understood that the funeral home’s plans are a “political hot potato” and why staff decided to pull the application to go before Planning and Zoning.

Rezanka told the council that approving the original crematorium in 2003 might not have been a public health, safety and welfare issue.

“Now, it’s truly a safety hazard,” she said, pointing to the fire from late 2009.

Members of the Sebastian City Council and Fire Chief Brian Nolan disagreed.

Chief Nolan told the council that the funeral home was going to install sprinklers tied into a fire alarm system that would dial 911, along with add a 2-hour fire rated enclosure around the chimneys to better prevent fire from escaping to the roof as last time.

“Seawinds’ people deserve a lot of credit,” Councilman Don Wright said for working with their neighbor, the Elks Lodge, to address their concerns.

The funeral home has agreed to rotate the furnaces within the building’s site plan so the chimneys can be farther away from the lodge and closer to the parking lot. Seawinds also has agreed to not operate the crematorium from noon to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays when the Elks Lodge is hosting bingo.

“I believe you did a wonderful job,” Councilwoman Andrea Coy said, addressing Seawinds Funeral Director James Young and his team.

“I believe we’re missing the big picture here,” Councilman Eugene Wolff said prior to casting his lone dissenting vote to uphold the funeral home’s expansion plans.

“Take these parties out of it,” Wolff implored the council – take Gilliams the “political gadfly” as Wolff called him and Seawinds out of the decision-making process.

He said the city has tried to work out issues between two neighbors instead of asking if the crematorium is should be there.

“We talk about quality of life,” Wolff said.

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