BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — It’s a conversation about bodies and where it is appropriate to cremate them.

A proposal for a human crematorium was up for debate Thursday night by the Kern County Planning Commission. The question: whether the crematorium can operate out of a multi-tenant building.

“Nobody wants to live next door or work next door to a crematorium or a mortuary,” said opponent Pete Leveroni, a representative of the Pegasus Business Centre Owners Group. 

“Nobody likes the idea,” continued Leveroni, adding with such a business, the insurance carrier will not renew their policy.

Suite 1 of the Pegasus Business Centre, a multi-tenant building near Meadows Field Airport, could be home to a new crematorium.

“I don’t think it’s any different than living next to a hospital or working next to a hospital,” said Rick Woody, project applicant & president of Clarmar Enterprises. 

According to the Kern County Public Health Services Department, a state DCA License Search shows there are 20 active funeral establishment permits in Kern. Woody said five are likely his, as he presides over the largest largest independent provider of death care services in Kern. 

And according to that same license search, there are eight active crematory permits in Kern.

Woody said concerns from opponents, like the property owners, are misguided.

“When people are unfamiliar with death, I think there’s a little bit of nervousness,” Woody explained. “And I think that’s exactly what’s going on here. But there’s really no reason to be nervous. We’ve provided a full health risk assessment, this has shown that we have no significant impact on the environment.”

Pushback has included  health concerns – like poor air quality due to fumes – safety concerns – like fire hazards – and worries property values may drop.

Opponents have said, overall, a crematorium doesn’t belong in a multi-tenant building and that such a business request is “unusual.” 

Craig Murphy with the county’s Planning Department, however, said one must view the project from an objective lens. 

“I don’t really know if I’d say it’s unusual,” said Murphy, Kern County Planning and Natural Resources Department’s associate director. “It’s a request in a multi-tenant building. It’s no different than someone putting in any other type of request.”

Woody described the location as just as close to a perfect spot for a crematory.

“It’s not close to any sensitive receptors,” he added, saying he searched for over two years for the right location. “There’s no schools, there’s not many residences nearby. It’s an industrial zone, and there’s very close proximity to the Kern County Coroner’s Office, where they’ll be relocating in just a few months.”

Woody also noted with the site’s proximity to the new coroner’s office, “vehicle miles travelled” or VMT would be minimized, cutting back emissions.

As such, permitted uses for this building include real estate offices and even bowling alleys. 

But in order to put in a crematorium, a conditional use permit (CUP) would be needed.

A hearing on whether to grant one was held Thursday night, but a decision was postponed, pending further review of potential environmental impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act. 

During the meeting, Murphy recommended a “refer back to staff.” 

“Meaning there is no project moving forward unless the project applicant says I would like to modify my request [or] I would like to move forward, at which point we will then identify the required studies that are necessary and the process necessary for an environmental document,” Murphy explained. 

His said the reason was, “If anyone brings up a fair argument, which that is the terminology used under the California Environmental Quality Act, you need to go through further [environmental] analysis.

That is – a fair argument the project could have significant environmental impacts, which opponents noted. But Woody is countering the department has “flunked the ‘Fair Argument’ test, as none of the evidence came from experts. 

Believing a full EIR would be extensive and unnecessary, Woody had planned to appeal the Planning Commission’s decision with the county Board of Supervisors but was told one could not appeal a “refer back to staff.” 

Following the decision, Woody told 17 News he will move forward with the existing CUP application for traditional fire cremation services. 

A full EIR could take 10 to 14 months. 

“I think that might be a tactic to see if we might move to another location,” Woody said. 

For now, Rick Woody said he is preparing to operate as a mortuary, which is permitted at this location. Murphy further explained mortuaries are allowed in general commercial office areas.  

No public hearings or such would be required for Woody to begin operations. If anything, he’ll just need to apply for whatever interior changes may be desired, noted Murphy. 

Woody said the bodies — most of which would be from the coroner’s office, hospitals and convalescent homes — would be brought in through the rear. The mortuary would not be open to the public, meaning no visitations or viewings.

“We have opposed that, and we are looking to try to get that delayed as well,” said Leveroni.

During this consideration process – Woody said he submitted a CUP application over a year ago and has been renting the office space for nearly 17 months without business – Woody has also proposed alkaline hydrolysis, or aquamation. 

“It just reduces the body down to the same type of human remains that you’d expect in a traditional fire cremation,” Woody described of aquamation. “Fire seems to be the problem that seems to cause the emissions people have problems with.”

He said the process uses water, chemicals and pressure to break down the body. 

Though Murphy has noted aquamation, too, would require a CUP and full EIR, Woody said he doesn’t understand why, as it’s typically considered more environmentally friendly.

“We’re not ready to give up traditional fire cremation just yet,” Woody concluded, but told planning commissioners they will likely see a CUP request for aquamation before 14 months.

The project applicant did note, however, aquamation is four times as expensive and three to four times as lengthy of a process as cremation, though.

The wastewater from all aquamations would go to the sanitation district to be purified and re-used as drinking water, for instance.

“At that point, there’s no recognizable human DNA,” Woody said to add reassurance.

Worth noting is the potential for an animal crematorium in the same multi-tenant building.

In fact, this crematorium has already been set up in Suite 5, though there has been no formal CUP application for the business.

“It’s not going to be appetizing, so to speak,” said opponent Pete Leveroni, on having two crematoriums in the same office space.