2020 | Development

Gaithersburg residents push back on proposal for crematorium

Neighbors fear environmental impact; funeral home says it would provide a needed service

share this

Some Gaithersburg residents have organized in opposition to a proposal to build a crematorium.

Photo via Rob Bindeman

Some Gaithersburg residents are fighting back against a proposal to build a crematorium in their neighborhood.

This year, DeVol Funeral Home, on East Deer Park Drive, submitted a plan to the Gaithersburg City Council to convert a single-family home on an adjacent lot into a crematorium. The facility would continue to look like a house, according to the plan, with the front acting as a parlor. DeVol plans to add a 600-square-foot addition to the back of the building to house the crematory.

Residents in the neighborhood fear the gases emitted by the incinerator will increase pollution or cause respiratory problems, according to Jennifer Jackson, who lives near the funeral home.

They also worry that the development will reduce their property values.

During a recent Gaithersburg City Council meeting, the funeral home’s owner, Bob DeVol, said the crematorium will be indiscernible from other homes in the community.

“I envision nobody would even know this is a crematory,” DeVol said. “There won’t be signage. … It should just look like another residence in the neighborhood.”

But Jackson said crematoriums should be considered an industrial business and prohibited from being built in a residential neighborhood at all.

“There’s nothing they can tell me … that will make me believe an incinerator in a residential community is safe for me, for my family or for pets,” Jackson said. “The ultimate goal, I think, is for DeVol’s application to be denied and they place the crematorium in an industrial park.”

During a public hearing about the project last month, DeVol said the cremation services would help “better serve” families in Gaithersburg.

Now, his business uses a crematorium in Alexandria, Va., for services. He said that since 1990, the funeral home has seen the percentage of families seeking cremation services increase from 15% to about 50%.

“We feel it would be something very good for our families that we can provide to them,” DeVol said. “We’re dealing with many different cultures … in Gaithersburg that are not doing cremations in our community because they want to be part of the process from start to finish.”

In recent years, cremations have surpassed burials as the most common end-of-life option, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Cremation is usually marketed as a more environmentally friendly option.

Some research suggests that cremations release air pollutants that can be harmful to the environment or reduce nearby air quality. Several research studies say there haven’t been enough studies about health implications of crematoriums in residential areas to definitively say if it is harmful.

Jeffrey Barron, an environmental professional with Matthew’s Environmental Services, said there will be no visible smoke or odor produced by the crematorium. He said there are rigorous federal and state standards the equipment must meet before being installed and that it is inspected at least annually.

When asked about the impact of the crematorium on the neighborhood, Scott Wallace, an attorney from Miles & Stockbridge representing DeVol, said, “There is no impact.”

“In many ways because of the technology involved … it functions so efficiently to eliminate smoke and odor. It operates in many ways more efficiently and more safely than a fireplace would,” Wallace said.

The group of residents who oppose the new crematorium say they feel the City Council does not respect the east side of Gaithersburg, a diverse community that is considered less affluent than other areas of the city.

Instead, Jackson said, council members “dump” unwanted and thinly vetted projects in the neighborhood.

“What it comes down to is this is environmental racism,” Jackson said. “People think racism and disenfranchisement is a man in a hood terrorizing communities, but it’s not like that at all. It’s disenfranchising entire communities by … doing things that cause higher risk of health problems, lower property values and deciding communities like ours are not desirable.”

But DeVol argued that Gaithersburg’s diversity is the driving force behind the project.

He said that because the city is so diverse, there are many residents with religious beliefs that require cremation, and some require the process to be overseen closely by family members.

“For us not having the facility, (the Alexandria facility) charges additional fees and they limit the number of people … which limits the number of people who can participate, which can be very difficult,” DeVol said.

In an email to Bethesda Beat on Friday, Rob Bindeman said the City Council should deny the application to ensure “that a residential neighborhood serves the people that live there.”

“People deserve parks and schools near their homes,” Bindeman wrote. “Not a toxic crematorium.”

In an interview on Wednesday, Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman said council members are reading all of the comments and concerns residents submit about the project.

Comments will be accepted until Sept. 16.

“Anybody who’d like to submit something, it will be considered,” Ashman said. “The council and I read through all of that feedback.”

The City Council will review and vote on the project during a meeting on Oct. 5.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com