Council approves funeral home

Published 4:35 pm Thursday, November 20, 2014

City Council on Wednesday approved a conditional use permit for a new funeral home on East Washington Street over the objections of dozens who packed the chambers and hundreds more who had signed a petition against the business.

Metropolitan Funeral Services had received the blessing of city staff as well as a recommendation from Planning Commission on a 7-1 vote, noted attorney Whitney Saunders, who was representing state Sen. Kenneth Alexander, owner of the three-location chain of funeral homes that currently operates in Norfolk and Portsmouth.

The business had met all the requirements of the city, Saunders noted in his statements during the public hearing.

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“If we’re not open for business, all we need to do is tell people to meet the requirements and then turn them away,” Saunders said.

With the 4.4-acre site located at the intersection of two two-lane streets, East Washington Street and Suburban Drive, and in a populated area, opponents were concerned about the amount of traffic the funeral home would generate and the impact on elderly residents.

“East Washington Street and Suburban Drive already have traffic problems,” said Brenda Joyner, president of the South Suffolk/Pleasant Hill Civic Association. “The congestion is very frustrating sometimes.”

Carlton Upton Sr., pastor of nearby Tabernacle Christian Church and owner of the neighboring Tabernacle Gardens assisted living facility, also said the traffic would create a problem.

During rush hour, “You can’t even turn from Suburban Drive onto East Washington Street,” he said, adding that the lanes are so narrow, “you have to almost turn into the next lane.”

He also worried about the effect on future residents of Tabernacle Gardens.

“When you get to an age when you’re looking forward to kind of settling into life, you don’t want to look out your window and see a funeral home,” he said, drawing chuckles from the audience.

Demetrius Wells asked the council members to imagine one of their neighbors receiving hundreds of visitors on a daily basis.

“We’re trying to maintain some degree of peace and safety,” she said.

Saunders noted that Alexander made several concessions to the community following an Oct. 30 meeting with them. He decreased the seating capacity to 400 from 500, removed the crematorium and a 10-car garage from the plan and promised that funerals and memorial services will not begin before 10:30 a.m., and funeral processions will not leave after 4:30 p.m.

He also said construction materials will be delivered only 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, with no construction activity on Sundays.

Patricia Knight, an opponent, said the neighborhood still didn’t want the facility to be built.

“We are not anti-business,” she said. “We use businesses every day. We are just saying to Metropolitan Funeral Home, ‘Not in our residential community.’”

Knight also broached the topic of non-funeral-related activities such as banquets, which some say Metropolitan Funeral Services has a reputation for hosting at its other locations.

However, Alexander said the funeral home will not conduct other events, and the City Council added that as a condition onto the permit.

Two members of City Council — Vice Mayor Charles Brown and Councilman Roger Fawcett — opposed the funeral home.

“To come into a stable community, to upset this many people, is wrong,” Brown said.

Fawcett blasted Alexander for not seeking the input of the community before buying the property. He also noted there’s nothing that prevents Alexander from returning to the council and requesting the crematorium and garage, although that would require another vote to amend the conditional use permit.

Councilman Mike Duman noted that Alexander could sell the property to another owner who might build something the community would find even more objectionable.

“Somebody will do something with the property,” Duman said. “Sometimes, what you wish for is not the best thing.”

“Private property rights in this country are sacred,” Mayor Linda T. Johnson added. “I believe this could be a good neighbor.”

The first motion was to deny the request and failed on a 2-5 vote, with Brown and Fawcett voting to deny. On a motion to approve, all of the members reversed their votes, and it passed 5-2.

Councilman Charles Parr recused himself because of rumors that he is a partner in the business — which he said are false — and because he also owns a funeral home, which some said would give him a financial interest in denying the request.

“I’m not going to be participating so I can avoid the perception of impropriety,” he said.