Madison County commissioners spoke at length with county planning leaders Nov. 14 about what went wrong with the recent crematory controversy. And they talked about changes they’d like to see in the planning and building inspection offices.
Board of commission members said they want to avoid situations in the future in which they — and the public — are “blindsided” by matters that arise without public hearings. Commissioners were unaware of a planned crematory at Ivie Funeral Home at the intersection of Hwy. 29 and Booger Hill Road until residents near the funeral home brought the matter to their attention.
County zoning administrator Linda Fortson approved a permit for the funeral home for the crematory in the spring, but leaders didn’t learn of the plans until six months later, after the funeral home installed the crematory and burned wood in the structure that had been used in transporting the equipment, which alarmed a neighboring resident, who began speaking out about the funeral home’s plans.
Over the past couple of months, numerous residents of the area have spoken against the crematory, citing concerns over emissions and radiation hazards. But funeral home leaders and others in the funeral services industry have sought to ease residents’ worries, saying there are numerous crematories in the area and that such facilities don’t pose health hazards.
Planning commission chairman Wayne Douglas addressed commissioners once again Nov. 14 about the crematory. He said he didn’t feel a controversial matter slipping through without a public hearing would be a common occurrence under the county’s zoning ordinance.
“I think this was a one-in-a-million occurrence,” said Douglas.
Douglas explained that the proposed crematory at the funeral home was deemed a “similar use” for a funeral home, meaning a permit was granted without a public hearing because the state government recognizes cremation as a common function of funeral homes. A rezoning was approved for Ivie Funeral Home in 2010, but no mention was made at that time of a crematory.
Both commissioners and residents of the Booger Hill Road area have said the issue deserved a public hearing, and the BOC allowed a local resident to file an appeal of the crematory with the planning commission. But the zoning board voted that there was no basis for an appeal, since the funeral home met all county requirements in applying for the permit and the 30-day deadline for objecting to the permit had passed.
Douglas said working to ensure that no one is caught off guard by plans in the future is a good idea, but he said the Ivie Funeral Home crematory issue is settled and can’t be revisited under the county zoning ordinance as currently written. He said that if the crematory can be appealed, the all permits passed at any time can be appealed.
“It means everything is still open and subject to appeal,” he said. “The ordinance must have some point where something is final.”
Commissioners said the situation must not happen again. District 1 board members Stanley Thomas pointed out that there have been crematory battles in other areas in Georgia, but he said those controversies went before a board or council.
“In our situation, we had no clue for six months,” he said.
Board members agreed that future proposed crematories need “conditional use permits,” which include public hearings. Commission chairman Anthony Dove also said it would be good to have building permits published in The Madison County Journal on a regular basis.
Fortson has faced considerable criticism from board members and the public for not making the crematory plans known. But she has said the applicant met the county’s requirements and the state oversees crematory regulation. Douglas has backed Fortson, saying he would have handled the matter in the same way.
On Nov. 14, commissioner Mike Youngblood questioned Fortson on several matters. He said that he has repeatedly asked Fortson to notify him when there are zoning issues in his district and that she has failed to do so. He said he went by the zoning office in the county government complex recently and found a note on the door. He said no county office should have a note on the door for the public. Fortson is the only person working in the office now. He said Fortson should have coordinated with the building inspection office to have someone in the office while she was gone. But he said he’d like to see the building inspection and planning offices combined into one department with one director and one entrance.
Youngblood said he doesn’t understand why Fortson arrives at work at 7:30 in the morning and he questioned her compensation time. He asked her if she had been in the office on a Saturday to decorate her office, and she said she had, but without pay. He told her that was illegal. Fortson said she has worked to do two jobs since the planning office staff was reduced from two to one. Douglas told board members that he was available to help out some in the zoning office if needed.