TALLMADGE -- For members of the First Congregational Church of Tallmadge, UCC, a proposed columbarium on church grounds would be a sacred place to inter those who have died. However, many neighbors of the proposed site say they are opposed to such a structure rising in their midst. "A columbarium should be located in a cemetery and not in our neighborhood," according to a petition signed by 34 surrounding property owners.

The church has proposed a 100-niche columbarium, 9 feet long by 5 feet high and 18 inches wide, to serve its congregation on its 7.97-acres at 85 Heritage Drive. A columbarium is a structure with niches for cremated remains. "First Congregational Church of Tallmadge, UCC, understands its mission to be an arch of spiritual and temporal care from birth through life and death for our members and friends," according to the Rev. Dr. John M. Schluep, senior pastor at the church. Schluep said the genesis for the columbarium idea was a memorial service he conducted for a newborn several years ago. The baby's cremains were interred in a family burial plot at a local cemetery owned by an out-of-state corporation and Schluep said the interment fee was $2,000. "I became incensed at the cost," Schluep said, "and I started a conversation "

Because the area is zoned residential, the church must obtain a conditional permit for the columbarium to proceed. Schluep and architect Robert White said the church has strived to make the plan for the columbarium visually unobtrusive. For instance, as proposed, the columbarium would be erected in a memorial garden located in the church's central courtyard, which is enclosed on three sides. Schluep said the plan is to landscape the open end of the courtyard with trees and shrubs to prohibit line-of-sight vision from Heritage Drive.

Tallmadge's Planning & Zoning Commission conducted a public hearing on the proposal April 6 and heard from residents -- the majority of whom voiced opposition to the proposal. Some neighbors expressed the fear a columbarium would be a a catalyst for a devaluation in their property values, while others contend they currently deal with unaddressed water run-off issues related to the church. Many simply stated they don't want to live near a cemetery.

Diane Ritzert, a 22-year resident of Minwood Avenue, said her backyard faces the church and she is "completely against" the requested zoning change. "By constructing a columbarium on the property, it will be considered a graveyard," Ritzert said, adding, "This distinction will lower property values of the surrounding homes and greatly change the neighborhood environment we have now.

"The church members will come on Sunday and go home," according to Ritzert, "but we are home there. We will deal with the ramifications of this zoning change forever because a columbarium is forever A graveyard must not be placed in our much loved neighborhood."

Melanie Wasson lives next door to the church. In researching information about its staff online, Wasson asserted that only two of the eight staff members listed live in Tallmadge. "I appreciate that, you know, it (the church) draws from all over," Wasson said, "but we are the ones that have to deal with it every single day." Wasson also cited an article from Realtor.com which suggested having a cemetery located near your home can depreciate its value by more than 12 percent. Schluep said he had researched the impact on property values as well and "discovered from that research that the answers are so diverse that they were of little help in drawing a general conclusion."

Wasson also noted there is a columbarium in the Tallmadge City Cemetery, which she said is located less than 1 mile from the proposed addition to the church courtyard.

Steve Mashak of Cheryl Drive said he's made "a significant investment" in his property in the last year, something he said doesn't want to lose. Mashak suggested the church could use the money it has allocated for a columbarium to assist its members with burials at established cemeteries or columbaria.

While many who spoke praised the church as being a good neighbor, a few said First Congregational hasn't been receptive to their complaints about problems with water run-off from its parking lot. "During a heavy rain," Kent Drive resident Russ Calvert said, "it's almost like a river that comes down from the parking lot to the east into my neighbor's yard." Church member Gary Rambler said he and others did "extensive landscaping at the church last year" and believed they had addressed the issue. At-Large City Council Representative Kim Ray, who resides on Cheryl Drive, said she, too, has experienced run-off problems related to the church. "Yesterday I had ducks swimming in my backyard," Ray reported.

"I don't think that anyone here is so naive as to think that this would not set a precedent down the road," Gerna Isley of North Avenue said. " I know back in the 1700s and 1800s we used to bury our family members in our backyard and I think we've come away from that. I think this is other people burying their family members in other people's backyards " Isley suggested First Congregational purchase land outside the city of Tallmadge and erect the desired columbarium there. Ray also voiced concern about the precedent-setting nature of the church's request, saying while she believes Schluep is well intentioned, he will be retiring soon.

"It's preposterous," Kent Road resident Carlo Maltempi said, to applause from his neighbors. "Let them put it somewhere else. But to have a cemetery in our neighborhood when they live outside of the neighborhood, it's shameful."

Minwood Drive resident Betty Sir Louis acknowledged she was in the minority in supporting the idea of the columbarium. Sir Louis explained it was her granddaughter's death that was the catalyst for the columbarium proposal. "I think, being a church member there, it would've been nice if we could have interred her in a place like that so when we do feel the need to visit with her, we just need to go up to the church and visit," Sir Louis said.

Jacqueline Mohr of Kent Drive said she has the distinction of being both a member of the church and living in the neighborhood surrounding it. Having lived there 45 years and having listened to a lot of her neighbors, Mohr said "This is just not the right thing to do. I've been very torn about this -- it's very difficult for me -- but I just can't live with my neighbors hating it the way they do."

Mayor Dave Kline suggested church officials consider buying a large area at the Tallmadge City Cemetery, 46 North Ave., and construct the columbarium there.

Schluep said the church wants to maintain a favorable relationship with its neighbors. He says First Congregational Church started exploring the possibility of adding a columbarium and memorial garden about three years ago. Schluep likens the presence of a columbarium to the time when churches provided members easy access to loved ones' resting place, like the old church graveyard. Eighteen to 24 months ago, church officials invited nearby property owners to a meeting about what it was envisioned. Feedback from that meeting led the church to alter its original idea of locating the Memorial Garden in the west side yard, according to Schluep. At Schluep's request, the matter has been tabled for further discussion at the commission's May 4 meeting. Commission member Patrick Larson said he would appreciate additional time to research the issue as well as the opportunity for the two commission members who were absent that evening-- chairman Gerald Taylor and Stephan Ryder -- to offer input.

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