RSF Association considers Village Church’s plans for columbarium

(Karen Billing)

The Village Community Presbyterian Church hopes to move ahead with its plans to build a columbarium, a memorial garden with niches to keep human cremains, a use that is currently prohibited by the Rancho Santa Fe Association’s Protective Covenant. In order to change the language of the Covenant, it would require a community-wide vote with two-thirds voting in favor of the modification.

The church made its first formal presentation to the Rancho Santa Fe Association board on Jan. 9 as the board continues to investigate its legal options regarding the project.

“We conceive that our ministry addresses the broader needs of the community and within San Diego County there are very few facilities where human remains can be placed,” said Rev. Jack Baca, pastor of the Village Church. “In the last 30 years there has been a shift in the way we deal with human remains.”

When he started as a pastor 38 years ago, Baca said almost every memorial service he presided over included traditional burial caskets which he said very rarely happens now. Cremation numbers have grown in California and nationally and many churches in the area have columbariums to serve their communities, including Church of the Nativity in Rancho Santa Fe (outside of the Covenant).

According to the National Funeral Directors Association’s 2019 report, the rate of cremation has surpassed the rate of burial in America for the last four years. About 56 % of Americans are projected to pick cremation over burial in 2020 and that percentage is expected to rise to 75% by 2035.

When it comes to the keeping of cremated remains, approximately 42% of cremated remains are returned to families, 35% are buried at a cemetery, 16% are scattered at non-cemetery locations and 8% are placed in a columbarium.

According to the report, as cremation rates continue to rise, non-burial options for cremated remains are expected to gain popularity as well.

A memorial garden and columbarium has long been a part of the Village Church’s plans for campus expansion and improvements. Set between the sanctuary and fellowship hall, the plan is for an existing courtyard to be enhanced with a gated entrance and a step stone walkway leading into the garden with about 300 to 350 niches to hold individual cremains or those of multiple family members. The garden would also feature a wood slat bench and a water feature.

The Village Church submitted its proposal to the Art Jury in mid-October. As it was such a minimal development, the Art Jury considered it just a landscape project and they had no comments on the concept design but remanded the whole application to the Association board due to the prohibition on columbariums.

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.”

At the meeting, David Keitel, a principal architect for domusstudio architecture, showed examples of older columbariums in California—much larger edifaces and buildings that look very different to what a current columbarium looks like.

“Most of the community typically doesn’t even know they exist,” said Keitel of modern columbariums which mostly just look like a garden or memorial wall.

Baca said that the word no longer means the same thing that it did in the 1920s, “the world has grown up around us and we think we need to grow along with it.” He said he believes the restrictions were written into the Covenant because they did not want large, obvious cemetaries or buildings or huge commercial structures.

“It’s completely out of the view of the public,” Baca said of their proposal, adding that it is not a commercial structure and is not a money-making scheme for the church.

During public comment, some members asked questions about the church project but no opposition was voiced.

RSF Association President Rick Sapp said that no matter what the board feels about the project, they do not have a “completely free hand.”

“There’s quite strict wording in the Covenant,” Sapp said. “This is a 90-year-old document and it might not be completely in line with what has happened in the world since but we do have to respect it and the community.”

Sapp said they will consult with their legal representatives on the matter to learn the process required to move forward, which could include the community-wide vote. He also encouraged members to continue to express their views to the Association.

Director Steve Dunn said he believes that the board does 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 it is in the best interest of the Covenant.

Dunn wanted to see the board take some action to place the project on an upcoming ballot and not put it off for months, “Do not miss the opportunity to put the question on the May ballot,” Dunn urged.

RSF Association Vice President Mike Gallagher noted that the church project is still a relatively new issue for the board and they need to take the time to do it right, being mindful of their responsibility as board members to uphold the Covenant.