A hearing examiner listened to 10 hours of testimony Friday on whether a crematory should be allowed in downtown Stanwood.
Peggy Kitting appealed Stanwood’s decision to allow a crematory in American Cremation and Casket Alliance, at 8808 271st St., diagonally across the street from the police station. Bill and Tari Dexter bought a Smokey Point funeral home business in 2018 and moved it to Stanwood so they could incorporate their own crematory in-house.
The appeal was heard at the North County fire station in Stanwood in front of a few dozen citizens.
Hearing examiner John E. Galt presided, saying the appellant has the burden of proof to show that the city’s interpretation of city code is wrong.
Galt will issue a decision by Nov. 27, after receiving closing statements from attorneys and Bill Dexter.
Kitting’s appeal states that the city’s decision was in error based on two counts:
• The city erred in determining that a crematory qualifies as an unlisted use in the Mainstreet Business-1 zone. Stanwood Municipal Code 17.30.020 says the community development director must find the use is consistent with the purpose and intent of the MB1 zone and with Comprehensive Plan policies, and the use is similar in nature and no more intense than listed uses.
• The city’s decision lacked conditions that would ensure compliance with SMC 17.50.020, which applies to industrial zones to protect adjacent areas from detrimental effects such as odor and air quality.
Kitting testified that she frequents downtown and considers the main street the heart of the city, often filled with parades, activities and events. She said that a crematory would harm that central location and her ability to enjoy and visit downtown.
“The city failed to make adequate findings,” Kitting said. “A funeral home is allowed, but an industrial strength incinerator is not.”
Vision statements going back at least to 2002 talked about preserving the small-town character, Kitting said. She read excerpts from vision statements that saw a resurgence of downtown Stanwood as the heart and core of the community, a pedestrian-friendly place to live, shop and visit.
“We want to retain this character,” she said.
Kitting had support from various community members who spoke at the hearing.
Kitting and Cathy Wooten visited a crematory at Hawthorne Funeral Home and Memorial Park in Mount Vernon.
Kitting said it was far off the road and surrounded by a cemetery. It’s about 500 feet from apartments. She also said the crematory machine was loud outside, and black smoke came out the chimney.
Inside they spoke with the cremationist and looked at the monitor with the cremationist. The monitor didn’t show a problem with the smoke. It was loud inside from fans and a shaking bowl that separated ashes from bones. Kitting said she was told the smell was from fat, but the cremationist didn’t see any problems with the smoke.
Kitting brought people to speak on the issue.
• Expert witness Bob Landles, a retired city of Everett land-use manager with 35 years in the field, said a crematory is not similar to the listed uses. He said a crematory fails to meet Stanwood’s strategic vision of a vibrant pedestrian-oriented downtown hub.
• Michael Ryan, certified cremationist and intern funeral director, said he works at Hawthorne and Gilbertson funeral homes in Mount Vernon and Stanwood. The Hawthorne location has a crematory with a 1997-era machine refitted with a new Matthews Power Pack 2 and features state-of-the-art monitoring and pollution controls and is the most efficient machine in the industry.
Most of the time, it emits vapor, but occasionally there’s an error that results in thick black smoke that smells bad, he said.
“We take care of it quickly, but not soon enough to keep it from happening,” Ryan said. “New facilities can have an ‘upset,’ as well.”
• Steve Shepro, vice president of Stanwood Planning Commission, gave a rundown of what led to the appeal. He discovered in July that the Dexters had been readying the building for a crematory since April 5, when city staff gave them written approval for a crematory. He sent a letter complaining that a crematory was not a listed use, and the project was stopped.
On Aug. 20, the city made an administrative decision allowing a crematory as an unlisted use. Kitting appealed.
Shepro said the Dexters’ business offers cremation services throughout the Interstate 5 corridor, which doesn’t add to the effort to make Main Street a pedestrian-oriented downtown. He said it contradicts the city’s vision and plans they were making for a welcome arch or gateway that would by on that corner.
On cross examination, Bill Dexter asked if his business could stop the arch from being placed there. Shepro said no.
• Cathy Wooten, a longtime Stanwood resident, said she worked to stop the septage treatment plant from being built near downtown. After that, she worked with the city on ordinance 1459, which restricts smell, noise, light, etc., from industries to their property lines so they don’t affect neighboring businesses and residences.
After the city passed the ordinance, “I believed we were protected,” she said.
When Wooten visited the crematory at Hawthorne, she said she could hear the machinery 120 feet away. Dexter’s building is 30 feet from the property line, so it would affect the neighboring businesses and people eating outside or going to the Farmers Market.
Community Planning Director Patricia Love has been involved in the project since the beginning.
City staff analyzed the issue to see if it kept with the purpose and intent of the MB1 zone, if it were similar in nature and not more intense, Love said. She saw it as a service use.
The MB1 zone has a historic overlay with a dense, historical block of pedestrian-oriented businesses. Across the 88th Avenue from the historical block is the Dexters’ site, where the landscape opens up to parking lots and set-back buildings.
There’s a long-term vision of how the city wants to grow, but on a project level, the business is going into an existing building, Love said. Pedestrians can still walk up and down the street. They’re working with what was existing, so it’s similar in nature and no more intense than any other type of business.
Love and Senior City Planner Amy Rusko observed the crematory at Solie Funeral Home in Everett and talked to the operator.
“We didn’t see the impacts being described today,” Love said.
They heard no noise from the viewing room and no smoke from the chimney, only a slight vapor wave above the stack. People were sitting and standing on decks at the three-story building next door, and some were eating.
“I couldn’t smell anything,” Love said.
Love also drove by a crematory in the heart of Fremont in Seattle and on the main street of Oak Harbor in a general commercial area. She said staff studied other cities’ zoning codes and found that crematories are commonly attached to funeral homes.
“The Comp Plan wants to see a vibrant city, wants to see broad categories of businesses,” she said.
It doesn’t restrain this type of use; it should be evaluated. It’s important to take a step back in terms of looking at this as an unclassified use, she said.
Kitting’s attorney, Rick Eichstaedt, asked if Love felt pressured over financial liability to continue its approval.
Love said, “I told the city management team; we need to do what the right thing is; it could potentially cost us money. And if there’s a lawsuit, we’ll have to deal with it.”