There are many issues of concern with the Eternal Hills expansion. Several relating to appearance and neighborhood compatibility are discussed below.
Eternal Hills cemetery was started in approximately 1948. In 1958, because
Eternal Hills was located on property not zoned for cemetery purposes, the owners of Eternal Hills applied to the City of Oceanside
for a conditional use permit. At that time, according to city records only three people lived within 200 feet of the cemetery.
In 1997, Eternal Hills was merged into Service Corporation International, Inc. (SCI), a 3.7 billion dollar corporation, headquartered in Houston, Texas. SCI is the world’s largest owner and operator of cemeteries in what it refers to as the “deathcare” industry.
SCI has requested permission to significantly expand Eternal Hills. A conditional use permit is required because the zoning of the property does not give the right to build a cemetery. The expansion proposal, together with another expansion approved in 1999, would result in 11 additional mausoleums and approximately 17,000 additional burial plots, plus an unspecified number of family estates, sculptures and other “accessory structures”. Seven of the 11 mausoleums would be built in the presently undeveloped area west of the current cemetery and north of Fire Mountain Drive.
Many residents are against the expansion proposal. The reasons include the following:
1. 11 Additional Mausoleums is Excessive. In 1999, SCI submitted a request and received permission from the City to construct five additional mausoleums on the existing cemetery grounds. The locations of these five mausoleums are shown on an Interim Development Plan and on this document. As of November 2007, only one of these five mausoleums has been built, (behind the main office area and near El Camino Real). It is a massive structure, as shown by this photo taken from a distance of approximately 100 yards:
The proposed expansion would use this same building design for seven additional mausoleums which would be built in the open space adjacent to Fire Mountain Drive. These structures would be 24 feet high and one would be located only 63 yards away from Bailey Drive and Fire Mountain Drive and would rise above the street level by 14 feet. All but two would be above Fire Mountain Drive. They would be facing you as your drove west on Fire Mountain.
We believe 11 additional mausoleums is entirely inappropriate and unnecessary. These unattractive structures would dominate the visual landscape and overwhelm the residential character of the surrounding neighborhood. Residents believe that there should be no further approval of any additional mausoleums until three out the four remaining mausoleums approved in 1999 are built and sold out. Those three mausoleums are to be located far away from any homes and are not a problem. One of the 1999 mausoleums, however, is called out to be placed at the intersection of Portofino and Fire Mountain, and that one should not be built because it’s too close to homes.
According to Eternal Hill’s records only about 50-60 interments take place in the existing mausoleums every year. This being the case, the mausoleums approved in 1999 should be sufficient to handle demand for 20-30 years, which is the stated goal of the expansion plan.
Other solutions include: (1) locating any mausoleums on the lowest part of the property instead of in the middle of the expansion area where they would be in plain view of everyone; (2) reducing their height and overall size and/or building them into the hillside so that they face north and do not obstruct any views from Fire Mountain Drive; and (3) using landscaping around the mausoleums so they are not so prominent and conspicuous.
UPDATE: The Oceanside Planning Commission ruled that it would be unwise to approve a particular achitectural design 20 years before a structure is built, as would be the case with the seven additional mausoleums. The Commissioners also felt that a single uniform design of the same height, etc., regardless of where it was placed in the property, was not appropriate and that each mausoleum should be presented to the Planning Commission as they were actually going to be built.
SCI has appealed this ruling. They want build the seven mausoleums as proposed.
2. The Culturally Significant Archeological Site
On the highest point on the property is a beautiful rock formation that was once home to an Indian village of over 1000 people. It has been said that the fires built here by the Indians were visible from Palomar Mountain and that is how Fire Mountain got its name.
The photo on our home page is taken from this location. It has been evaluated by an archeologist and found to be “culturally significant” under California law. We will post the report of the archeologist in coming days.
The Planning Commission recognized the special nature of this site and voted to preserve one acre of it. SCI has appealed this decision.
We strongly disagree and look forward to working with the entire community to preserve this special place.
3. Future Care and Upkeep
State law requires “endowment care” cemeteries such as Eternal Hills to set aside a small amount of money from each grave sale into a fund which is to last “in perpetuity”
to pay for the cost of maintaining the cemetery when it is fully built-out. Under state law, only the interest on the funds can be used for maintenance.
Governor Schwarzenegger has ordered the state Cemetery and Funeral Bureau to conduct a survey of the maintenance expenses of all endowment care cemeteries in the state in an effort to determine the extent to which these funds are inadequate to last in perpetuity. The state Funeral Bureau is to report its findings to the Governor by the end of 2007, and it seems likely an increase in the minimum amounts collected by cemeteries would follow.
It appears Eternal Hills does not collect more than the minimum amount required by state law. The endowment care fund is controlled by SCI. Whether it is adequately funded given the projected maintenance expenses of Eternal Hills is unknown. Unlike a homeowners association which periodically reviews the adequacy of its reserves to make sure it can take care of common areas, Eternal Hills has not informed residents that it has performed such a study and found the present funding levels adequate.
This is a serious issue which merits attention. No expansion should be approved until it is first determined that the present balance of the endowment care fund is adequate to properly maintain the existing cemetery in perpetuity assuming it were to close right now. If there is not enough money to care for the existing cemetery, then any further expansion must not be approved until any shortfall is addressed. This three-part article discusses this issue in much greater detail.
This sort of analysis has not been done. It is critical that it be done because when this cemetery is fully built out, SCI will almost certainly leave and the endowment care fund will be all that the community has to make sure this cemetery is adequately maintained. In this respect, this expansion plan should not be accorded the same deference for private property rights which other projects may receive. If the funding levels for future maintenance are not adequate, the cost of maintenance would most likely fall upon the taxpayers of the City of Oceanside.
In evaluating this issue, we should be aware that according to county records and state records SCI owns Oceanview Cemetery located on Coast Highway, which has had to rely upon the Girl Scouts for maintenance. This was the subject of an article in the North County Times several years ago.
4. Flush vs. Upright Grave Markers/Memorials
The existing cemetery visible from Fire Mountain Drive conveys, for the most part, a park-like appearance, thanks largely to flush to the ground grave markers. In the back of the cemetery, there is an area where there are upright memorials.
In recent years, several upright memorials of various sizes and colors have also been placed alongside Fire Mountain Drive. Though everyone agrees that flush markers create the most attractive appearance, SCI wants to have the right to put upright headstones and other memorials of any size and color wherever it wants within the expansion area. We believe the markers should be limited to the flush-to-the-ground type in order to maintain a nice park-like appearance.
UPDATE: The Planning Commission did not consider this issue and there will be no restrictions on the use of upright memorials, other than that they not emit light or sound. This is an unfortunate result which was probably more a function of the many complicated issues the Planning Commission had to consider than anything else.
4. Grading. The immediate grading of 20 acres of land adjacent to Fire Mountain Drive which is claimed to be necessary in order to “set the boundaries of the expansion”.
Residents believe such extensive grading is not necessary. The proposed expansion area is located in the Wildlife Corridor Planning Zone, which generally follows the SDG&E power lines, and provides a vital stepping stone for wildlife to migrate north and south.
The needs of the cemetery can easily be met by incrementally adding more land as needed. One acre yields 1000 grave sites, equal to approximately three years of burials based upon data submitted by SCI to the California Funeral Bureau from 2004 – 2006.
UPDATE: The Planning Commission voted to limit grading and development to 5-7 acre increments, which is customary for cemeteries.
SCI has not appealed this decision.
The “Friends of Fire Mountain” only wants to ensure that things are done right and in a way which is most compatible with the surrounding neighborhood. While SCI does
not seem to seek these goals as much as we do, the early owners of Eternal Hills certainly did, as shown by the following statements they made to the City of Oceanside in the 1958 C.U.P. application:
“It is the intention of Eternal Hills Cemetery to continue to operate the highest type of memorial park possible and to so constitute Eternal Hills Cemetery as a continuing source of pride to the community of Oceanside.”
“Those buildings already constructed as well as those to be erected in the future are and will be of an architecture and design compatible with the finest community and cemetery development.”