RSF Association to discuss Village Church’s plans for columbarium

The Village Church's plan for a columbarium in their prayer garden.

The Village Church is hoping to add a columbarium to its prayer garden, a walled memorial garden with niches that hold remains. The church’s plans are in question as the use of a columbarium is prohibited by the Rancho Santa Fe Association Protective Covenant.

The proposed project is on the docket for discussion at the Association board’s Jan. 9 meeting at 9:30 a.m. at the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club and the church is hopeful that the community will voice support for its effort.

In his 21 years at the Village Church, Rev. Dr. Jack Baca said the columbarium has always been a part of the plans to expand and improve the church facilities.

As it was not allowed by the Covenant, a columbarium was pushed to the side when they built the new sanctuary 10 years ago but they had a perfect space in mind in their memorial garden. Set between the sanctuary and fellowship hall, the existing courtyard would be enhanced with a gated entrance and a step stone walkway leading into the niched walls. The garden would also feature a wood slat bench and a water feature.

“We feel like now is the right time to address this question with the Association and the larger community,” Baca said. “There is no visual impact from the outside…the privacy of the garden itself is important for people to have a quiet space where they can go and remember their loved ones.”

The Village Church submitted its proposal to the Art Jury in mid-October.

“This was such a minimal development that they considered it just a landscape project,” Baca said. “The prayer garden already exists, and there were just minor modifications to the existing interior space. The Art Jury had no comments with the conceptual plan.”

The Art Jury remanded the whole application to the Association board due to the prohibition of columbarium developments. The Association board discussed the project at its Dec. 5 board meeting with President Rick Sapp holding a hard line and asserting that the board does not have the power to change the language of the Covenant and it would require a community-wide vote. A Covenant modification requires two-thirds approval and one hasn’t been approved since the 1970s—if approved by the board, the project vote would go out in May with the election of the Association board candidates.

Director Steve Dunn noted that its “historically impossible” to do a Covenant modification because the Association does not even get close to 75 percent of membership to vote on anything. Dunn has spoken with the Association’s attorney and he believes that boards do have a right to interpret the Covenant and to modify the intent without requiring a Covenant modification, if the decision recognizes that with time the original intent is no longer meaningful and is in the best interest of the Covenant.

“I believe a lot of people in our Covenant realize what the Village Church means to this community,” Dunn said. “It’s a church that’s very much the heart of our community.”

If the question does go to the ballot, Dunn said he believes that there could be overwhelming support, even if they do not get the required two-thirds to vote.

Dunn noted that three members of the board, including himself, are members of the Village Church and he does not know how they will handle conflict of interest. He hopes that there will be strong support from the community at the Jan. 9 meeting.

Article 1 of the Protective Covenant, which was recorded in February 1928, prohibits properties being used for a cemetery, columbarium or crematory. According to the church’s submission to the Art Jury, at that time, cemeteries usually included the construction of a large building which held the ashes of deceased persons who did not want to be buried in the ground. Those buildings were called columbariums, which is a term that came from Latin meaning “pigeon house.”

Article 1 also references the prohibition of uses of any building for the manufacture of gun powder, explosives or any by-product of kelp, fish meal, fish oil or fertilizer or for conducting a slaughterhouse or tannery, or institutions for the care of persons afflicted with tuberculosis or the care of “victims of drink or drugs.”

“I have to believe the restrictions put in the CC and R’s were because they did not want large, obvious cemeteries or buildings which is what a columbarium used to be,” Baca said. “That is not at all what we envision this to be.”

Many local churches now have columbariums, including the Church of the Nativity on El Apajo (outside of the Covenant). As Baca noted, burial practices have changed with the times—there are not many cemeteries in San Diego and cremation has increased with California being one of the leading states for cremation.

Due to the scarcity and cost of land in California, cremation is a respectful and more ecologically sound way of dealing with human remains, Baca said, and there are emotional and religious overtones to people wanting their final resting place to be nearer to a place dedicated to worship and community service.

“We see a memorial garden as an extension and as a continuation of our ministry here, not only to our members but it’s an added value to the greater community with zero downside,” Baca said.

Baca said he is hopeful that the community and the Association will see their project as a valuable addition and will allow the church to move forward.