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Planning Commission Losing Its Edge?
Correction:I made an error in reporting below that the Planning Commission had approved the Point Richmond Shores Project on June 1, and I apologize for that. What the Planning Commission did was vote 6-0 to continue it to tonight, June 22.. I remain critical, however, of Planning staff for endorsing a defective EIR containing baldfaced lies, subverting a scathing review by a hard-working Design Review Board and ignoring a lot of creative work by a large group of concerned citizens who are advocating for a better design.

For a while, I thought we had a pretty good Planning Commission, but of late they appear to have become a rubber stamp for developers and poor staff work. Take a look at two projects that floated through on 6-0 votes on June 1, 2006.

The first is the contentious Toll Brothers Point Richmond Shores project at the former Terminal 1 site (EID/TM/GPA/RZ 1101112 – Point Richmond Shores at Dornan Drive and Brickyard Cove Road). Despite a defective EIR containing baldfaced lies, a scathing review by a hard-working Design Review Board and a lot of creative work by a large group of concerned citizens who are advocating for a better design, the Planning Commission did not hesitate to give it their unanimous stamp of approval. Not a single person on the commission stood up for the people.

The second is a change to the Zoning Ordinance (ZTC 1102802 (ZTC 06-02) – Zoning Text Change for Crematory Uses) designed to let a large crematory move into a North Richmond neighborhood already plagued with downwind emissions from the second largest refinery in California. Obviously, no one on the Commission cares about environmental justice. In all fairness to the Commission, however, Planning staff apparently didn’t exactly get the drift either, with contract Assistant City Attorney (advising the Planning Commission) Mary Renfro being quoted in the media as saying “ … staff sometimes gets overwhelmed with projects and can't research what each proposal means." I thought that is why we have staff. That should give the citizens of Richmond a lot of confidence in their government.

Maybe there was some thought that we should vertically integrate certain services in Richmond as an economic development strategy, getting the crematorium as close as possible to the homicide capital of California.

Apparently the only person who actually did any work on the crematorium issue is John Geluardi of the West County Times. I nominate him for a journalism prize.

Stories from the West County Times and San Francisco Chronicle follow:

Richmond considers rezoning for cremation

By John Geluardi

Posted on Wed, Jun. 21, 2006

RICHMOND - Richmond's planners have been quietly working to bring one of the state's busiest crematoriums to an area near homes and youth centers.

The city prohibits cremation except at cemeteries. But on June 1, the Planning Commission approved permitting cremation in nine types of zoning areas including near schools, senior centers and businesses. The City Council is to consider adopting the change on July 11.

Before the June 1 vote, planning staff members did not tell commissioners that Stewart Enterprises, owner of the Neptune Society and one of the top three funeral corporations in America, sought the zoning change.

It wants to move its Emeryville crematorium to a 20,000-square-foot building at 1151 Hensley St. on the border of North Richmond, a low-income community of mostly African-American and Latino families.

The staff report also does not mention that Neptune would cremate more than 3,000 bodies a year, generating at least 3 pounds of mercury emissions annually, based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency statistics. The staff report also asserts that allowing crematoriums would not require an environmental report.

Mercury is particularly hazardous to children's developing nervous systems and brains. It is known to affect cognitive ability, memory and language skills. In adults, it can cause disorders such as excessive shyness, attention deficit and respiratory problems, according to the EPA.

Planning staff members were not deliberately hiding information from the commissioners and the council will have more background for its meeting, assistant city attorney Mary Renfro said.

"It's not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes but staff sometimes gets overwhelmed with projects and can't research what each proposal means," she said.

"We are aware now that there is more information available. We are reviewing whether the ordinance change will require a environmental impact review."

Two commissioners said they would have liked more information before their vote. Commission Chairwoman Virginia Finley said she was not sure she would have voted differently, but she would have liked the "back story."

Commissioner Nagaraja Rue said he would have voted against the change had he known mercury would be released over North Richmond, a community affected by pollutants from industries including the Chevron refinery. "It is the duty of staff to research these issues and provide us with information," he said.

Many other cities across the state are grappling with the same issues. In 2003, more than half of the state's dead were cremated, an 8 percent increase from 1999, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The commission estimates that rate will rise to 65 percent by 2010.

Crematoriums typically have been mom-and-pop operations cremating an average of 300 bodies a year with relatively small toxic emissions. But in the past few years, large funeral companies have been acquiring and consolidating crematoriums, increasing local toxic emissions.

There is no reason to be concerned, Neptune regional vice president Bill Farrar said this week. "There have been a lot of studies done and it's a safe process," he said. "With the machines available today there is very little risk."

According to a joint study by the EPA and the Cremation Association of North America, a cremated body emits about 0.46 grams of mercury. Nonindustry sources estimate as much as 3 grams of mercury per cremation.

At the industry rate, Neptune's Hensley Street crematorium would emit about 3 pounds of mercury a year.

By comparison, the Conoco Philips refinery in Rodeo emitted 80 pounds in 2002, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. It is uncertain whether mercury from the proposed crematorium would be harmful to North Richmond residents, said Aaron Richardson, an air district spokesman.

"All I can say is that the crematorium won't be allowed to operate if it exceeds state standards for noncarcinogenic emissions."

One community watchdog said it would be unacceptable to add any more toxic pollution in the North Richmond community, said Henry Clark, executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition.

"The prevailing winds will blow mercury from that facility on Hensley right over North Richmond and then on to Parchester Village, both low-income communities of color," he said.

"We are trying to clean up our environment to protect our children, our public health and prevent disease. Here again someone wants to use North Richmond as a toxic dumping ground."

He said Neptune's crematorium plan is particularly upsetting because the YMCA Child Development Center, licensed to care for 60 infants, toddlers and preschoolers, is four blocks downwind.

A variety of pollution sources affect North Richmond residents, including chemical manufacturers, the Chevron refinery, two major truck routes and a large sea port, said Meena Palaniappan, a Pacific Institute senior research associate.

"Children under the age of 14 in North Richmond are more than twice as likely to be hospitalized for asthma compared to the county and the state," she said, citing a 2005 study.

The proposed ordinance change has attracted the interest of another crematorium operator. Clinton Love, president of Bay Area Cremation and Funeral Services, said he has selected a Richmond site for a crematorium. He refused to say where it is.

One city refused to let Love come in. San Leandro residents banded together in 2004 to keep him from opening a crematorium there. The public outcry at several raucous meetings so overwhelmed city leaders that they permanently banned crematoriums.

Richmond Mayor Irma Anderson said Tuesday it's too soon to tell how she will vote July 11. She did say she is very concerned about another smoke-stack industry affecting North Richmond and surrounding communities.

"The thing I'm most distressed about is that the public did not have an opportunity to address this issue at the Planning Commission hearing."

Councilman Tom Butt also was unsure of how he would vote, but expressed frustration with the planning staff.

"Why can't they just say 'No, we don't want you here'? They'd let a coal mine operate downtown if somebody asked."

Reach John Geluardi at 510-262-2787 or jgeluardi@cctimes.com


The Environmental Protection Agency: www.epa.gov

The Cremation Association of North America: www.cremationassociation.org

The Pacific Institute: www.pacinst.org or 510-251-1600


Feb. 1: The Neptune Society applies for a zoning modification to permit it to operate what would be one of the state's busiest crematoriums on Hensley Street on the North Richmond border.

June 1: The Richmond Planning Commission preliminarily approves the change to allow cremation in nine city zones.

July 11:

Crematorium move to Richmond approved without emissions data
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

(06-21) 12:13 PDT Richmond, Calif. (AP) --

City planners were not told about toxic emissions when they approved a move by one of the state's biggest crematoriums to relocate near homes and businesses.

The Planning Commission voted June 1 to permit cremation outside of cemeteries, which would allow Stewart Enterprises, owner of the Neptune Society, to move its Emeryville crematorium to a 20,000-square-foot North Richmond building.

But a staff report failed to mention that Stewart sought the zoning change, and that the crematorium will process more than 3,000 bodies a year, emitting at least 3 pounds of toxic mercury, commissioners said.

Planning staff members did not deliberately hide information from the commissioners, said assistant city attorney Mary Renfro.

"It's not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes but staff sometimes gets overwhelmed with projects and can't research what each proposal means," she said.

Renfro said city councilors will have the appropriate background when they vote July 11 on the zoning change.

The council will also determine whether an environmental review should be carried out.