Lillian Boyd, Dana Point Times
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church received approval to construct a columbarium on site after a rare 3-2 vote from the Dana Point Planning Commission on Monday, Oct. 28.
The church, which is located at 35011 Stonehill Drive and founded in 1966, initially included a columbarium project in its master plan in 2014. However, the columbarium was removed from the project due to its controversy within the surrounding neighborhood.
A columbarium is a building with niches for cremated remains to be stored. City staff consider a columbarium to fall under the definition of a cemetery. Cremation and living near cemeteries is prohibited in some religions, including Orthodox Judaism and Islam.
The project includes a 4’4” pre-fabricated columbarium to be installed on an existing bench within the church’s contemplation garden at the rear of the project site. It would hold up to 444 urns. The church is within a Community Facility zone, which means the construction of a cemetery (or columbarium) would require a conditional use permit.
During the project’s public hearing at the Dana Point Community Center, several neighboring residents spoke against the project.
“I would not have purchased my property had I known I’d be living near a cemetery,” said neighbor Lilies Smith. “My religion does not allow me to live near dead people. And this project would make it more difficult to sell. My daughter’s window would face (the columbarium), and she is nervous to be around dead people.”
While several opponents of the project cited religious differences and the possible drop in real estate value, city staff said there is no concrete research that shows cemeteries cause a decline or increase in real estate value.
Additionally, several residents and churchgoers spoke in favor of the project, including the Gloria Dei’s pastor, David Mattson, who addressed common questions and concerns that had been brought to his attention.
“We looked at how other columbariums impacted surrounding communities, and we could not find negative impact. This is not a moneymaker for the church,” Mattson said. “Like all churches, Gloria Dei deals with people from all walks of life. We help people at every stage of life, and we hope this (columbarium) will be part of our overall ministry.”
During commissioner comments, Chair Roy Dohner expressed concern for how the original project was approved under the condition of public art—which in the case of the original project was satisfied with stained glass windows.
“It’s a very emotional issue,” Dohner said. “My concern is, if we approve, is the project going to enhance art for the public or only for members of the church? From that standpoint, I am not in favor of this project.”
Commissioner Dani Murphy said she was on the fence.
“Everybody knows that neighborhoods are the fabric that keeps us together,” Murphy said. “It’s hard for me . . . excuse me for stuttering . . . I have some insight with property owners who bought their homes decades ago and would not have foreseen this. And you have to have great empathy for those who did not expect this.”
The commission voted, 3-2, to grant the permit to Gloria Dei, with Dohner and Murphy voting against it. More often than not, the commission votes on projects unanimously.
The project can be appealed no later than Nov. 12.
After the planning commission’s vote, Pastor Mattson reflected on the hearing.
“As a church, we confront death very frequently,” Mattson said. “We take that for granted. We’re constantly handling funerals and offering counsel. For a lot of folks, death is much more removed and scary.”
Lillian Boyd is the senior editor for Picket Fence Media and city editor for Dana Point Times. She graduated with a degree in journalism from Humboldt State University. Her work experience includes interviewing incarcerated individuals in the Los Angeles County jails, an internship at the Pentagon covering U.S. Army news as well as reporting and anchoring for a local news radio station in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @Lillianmboyd and follow Dana Point Times at @danapointtimes.