Noblin goes back to city for on-site crematorium

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Tempers flared at Monday night's city of Belen Planning and Zoning Commission meeting as residents expressed their views over a proposed zone change that would make way for Noblin Funeral Services to add an on-site crematorium.

About 30 residents attended the meeting and listened as the public addressed the commission and gave their reasoning why they thought the crematorium was a good or a bad idea for the city of Belen.

The conflict stems from Robert Noblin's request to change the zoning at 418 West Reinken Ave., the funeral home's location, from a Commercial-1 to special-use zone in order to allow for the addition.

With the addition, Noblin, who owns the funeral home, will be able to conduct roughly 150 to 200 cremations a year without contracting with a third-party crematorium, he told commissioners.

The commission called the meeting to decide whether or not to send the proposed zoning amendment request to the Belen City Council with or without a recommendation. After the public comment session, the commissioners reached a tie, which means the motion died.

The zone change request will go to the council without a for or against recommendation.

Noblin said the commission's vote to send the request to the city council without a stamp of approval or disapproval is a step in the right direction.

"To move forward to the city council without a recommendation, not a 'no' not a 'yes,' is a sign we came a long way from the last meeting," Noblin said. "People are starting to understand that we are just here looking for a zone change in an effort to grow my business and do what the families I serve want."

In May, commissioners were split on a 2-2 tie vote. Commission Chairman Rod Storey broke the tie by voting to recommend denial of the change.

The zone change was denied by the city council in July on a 3-1 vote.

During the nearly hour-long public comment session Monday, emotions ran so high that an argument broke out, complete with allusions to threats of violence between a resident against the crematorium and a Noblin employee.

The exchange grew so heated that the city's Planning and Zoning Director Steve Tomita, along with several audience members, had to continually ask the disputing parties to quiet down.

After the commission voted and the zone change portion ended, Tomita followed the parties out to the parking lot to make sure the hostilities didn't manifest into something more.

At the onset of the hearing's public comment session, the commission chairman Tom Greer informed audience members that the commission must adhere to strict rules regarding the zone change request.

"We have very narrow guidelines for what we can do," Greer said. "I understand there are a lot of emotions and everything else involved in this. We have seen it in the past (where) it really takes it beyond what a planning and zoning (commission) does.

Belen resident Frank Storey asked Greer to recuse himself because of his close business relationship with Noblin.

"Mr. Greer, with all due respect, I think you need to remove yourself from voting, if this gets to a vote, because I know you and your wife do business with Mr. Noblin," Frank Storey said. "I don't think it is appropriate for you to vote if it gets to that point."

A couple of audience members, including Joseph Laurenzano, suggested that Commissioner Rod Storey recuse himself from voting due to one of his family member's off-and-on employment with Noblin's competition, Romero Funeral Home.

"He is a neighbor of Dicky Romero and I know for a fact that if his son isn't working now he has worked with him in the past," Laurenzano said. "I know because I worked at that facility. We do have a conflict of interest and you should remove yourself from making this decision."

Laurenzano's statement prompted a response from Frank Storey and the two began arguing.

Rod Storey responded to his critics, saying he would not recuse himself because the issue at hand relates to planning and zoning, not economic development.

"I will not recuse (myself). This is not an economic development issue, and it has nothing to do with competing businesses. This is a planning and zoning issue, which is heard before us," Rod Storey said. "It has been heard before and I will not recuse."

A 30-by-30 foot structure would house the crematory facility, which would be in operation from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, if the zone change is approved.

Cremations would use natural gas in two chambers, one where the temperature reaches 1,650 degrees, and a second after burner, where the temperature reaches 2,200 degrees. Odorless heat vapors would exit through the crematory's stack without any visible smoke or particulate matter.

Since the unit emits low emissions and is highly efficient, its emissions are not regulated on a state or federal level, Noblin said. Crematoriums are, however, regulated and subject to inspection by the New Mexico Board of Funeral Services.

Despite Noblin's assurances that the crematorium will produce little or no pollution, a number of residents, including Al Padilla, expressed concern about burning dead bodies next to a popular park where children spend countless hours, especially during the summer months.

Padilla said besides preventing school-aged children from inhaling pollution from cremated bodies, he and his neighbors believe the crematorium is a bad idea for the community because it would interfere with potential home sales.

"If you don't think for one minute they see a crematorium that isn't going to raise their eyebrow," Padilla said, "I betcha' the wife would say, 'Hell no. I don't want to live next to no crematorium.'"

Pete Armstrong, who lives a block away from the proposed site, said he and many of his neighbors welcome the crematorium because it speaks of economic development. He implored the commissioners to let the facts guide their judgment.

"The message that you all send, whether it be for or against this particular action, will send a very strong message to those who want to do business in this town," Armstrong said. "The word is that Belen is not very friendly to business."

He added that support for this action will illustrate to people that if you play by the rules and go above and beyond what is required, the city of Belen will work with you to achieve your business-related goals.

The city council will hold a public hearing on the zone change request at its Monday, Jan. 6, meeting.