BY Kim Schneider
The Lake Elmo City Council approved a preliminary and final plat for a controversial cemetery on Tuesday, April 17 after a court order mandated them to approve with conditions.
Four council members voted to approve Lee Rossow’s project, Halcyon Cemetery, and Jill Lundgren abstained from voting. The cemetery will be located at the 10-acre site on the northeast corner of 50th St. North and Lake Elmo Ave.
Rossow posits that Halcyon Cemetery would be a modern, nondenominational cemetery with the ability to accommodate burials of many members of the same family, laser-etched portraits on headstones and LED lights.
Rossow’s parents built the property’s single-family home in 1984 and it was occupied until 2011 when Rossow’s mother died. Halcyon cemetery would honor the wishes of his parents to be buried at their home. The plot is zoned as rural residential, a land use that was modified during a 2013 update to city code to allow conditional use for cemeteries.
The existing home would house the cemetery’s caretaker and become a space for funeral services and memorials. The plan includes three additions: a parking lot, space for in-ground burials and an area for columbarium. At a city council meeting in July, 2015, Rossow proposed an expansion to the house to provide space for more than 200 mourners.
The city council rejected Rossow’s preliminary plan for the cemetery at their Oct. 6, 2015 meeting. According to the staff report on the issue, the council initially denied the plan because of its large scale business, “overwhelming” opposition from residents and the funeral home component.
Rossow challenged the denial in the District Court, which sided with the city. When he appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, the court returned the case to District Court and instructed that an order be issued to the city to approve the plat. The city appealed the decision to the Supreme Court and on Feb. 20, the court denied to hear their petition.
Kristina Handt, Lake Elmo City Administrator, said the city hasn’t received the League of Minnesota Cities’ final bill for the case. However as of last September, she said the league had $33,145 in legal costs. Although most is covered by the citie’s insurance, the city must pay a $500 deductible because Rossow filed the case before the city’s deductible increased. In addition, the city pays 15 percent of the first $250,000.
The city’s share of the cost will be at least $5,471, Handt said, but may be more after the billing includes costs from the Supreme Court appeal.
Three community members provided public comment on the cemetery at the meeting.
Susan Saffle raised concerns about the effects of the cemetery on the city’s water. Saffle called for city vigilance as Rossow oversees the cemetery’s storm drainage, holding ponds and septic tank. Another resident was concerned about chemicals and surface water runoff.
“The cemetery will also be sitting atop an aquifer that supplies Lake Elmo with drinking water,” Saffle said. “I continue to believe that this has been a poor choice and it will change the nature of this neighborhood.”
Handt said the Minnesota Department of Health’s regulations state there must be a 50 foot setback between a well and graves. Rossow’s property line is more than 200 feet from the city well, Handt said.
The only thing now standing in the way of Halcyon Cemetery is reissuing an expired surface water management permit from the Valley Branch Watershed District.
Before the issue went to vote, Council member Justin Bloyer said he regreted voting against the cemetery three years ago. He also added that he disapproves of any attempt to block the cemetery by opposing Valley Branch Watershed District reissuing the permit.
“We had the opportunity to work with Mr. Rossow on this cemetery and he was more than willing to work with us. But we sat up here with a 5-0 vote and voted no,” Bloyer said. “He’s not going to be dumping chemicals into the ground. He’s not going to have strobe lights flashing on the cemetery all night long.”
Bloyer added that the city council offered Rossow $40,000 or $50,000 of taxpayer money to prevent him from building the cemetery. Rossow decline, Bloyer said.
“This was a legal, properly zoned entity that we disregarded for no reason other than the neighbors didn’t want it,” Bloyer said. “There’s a court order. Maybe we could try to be good neighbors and work with him.”
Contact Kim Schneider at firstname.lastname@example.org