Man’s effort to expand Venersborg Cemetery hinges on county vote

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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The small Venersborg Cemetery isn’t full, but the plots have long been sold and the idea of expanding the cemetery has been around for years.

When John Marini, the president of the nonprofit Venersborg Cemetery Association, started trying last year in earnest to determine what bureaucratic hoops he’d have to jump through, it was discouraging.

Getting the land wasn’t a problem. Longview Fibre Co., which owns the adjacent land, was willing to donate four acres so the cemetery would have a five-acre parcel.

But zoning was complicated, to say the least.

Marini contacted Andy Jacobson, an architect from Wilson Associates he’d worked with before, to help him sort through county code.

“It turned out to be a tortuous thing,” Jacobson said.

The 1-acre cemetery was first incorporated in 1914. The land for the cemetery was bought for $10 from the Swedish Land and Colonization Co., the group that settled the area southeast of Battle Ground.

Under the growth plan the county was required to do by the 1990 Growth Management Act, the land is zoned FR-80. The FR stands for forest and the 80 refers to 80-acre lots.

While the 1-acre cemetery is grandfathered in, an expansion would have to follow current code and cemeteries are not allowed in FR-80 zones because cemeteries aren’t seen as a productive use of resource land, said Jan Bazala, a county planner.

Bazala said that as a current “nonconforming” use, the cemetery would not have to be 80 acres.

The real problem, he said, was that cemeteries aren’t an allowed use in the FR-80 zone.

The cemetery association could have applied for a zone change, which would have required an amendment to the county’s comprehensive growth management plan. The yearlong process costs $8,207 and comes with a long list of requirements.

In all, Marini said he would have had to spend more than $20,000.

That was out of the question.

The owner of Chrome Industrial Repair in Orchards, Marini said he’s willing to pay the cemetery association’s and Longview Fibre’s costs to make the required boundary line adjustments out of his own pocket.

Marini and Jacobson met with Clark County Commissioner Tom Mielke and Marty Snell, director of the Clark County Community Development Department.

Snell said the easiest solution would be for the commissioners to change the county code to allow existing cemeteries to expand in the FR-80 zone.

Commissioners will vote on the proposal June 12.

During a recent work session, commissioners seemed receptive to approving the code change.

If approved, it will mean other old cemeteries in the FR-80 zone also will be allowed to expand. It will not mean that new cemeteries can be built in that zone, Bazala said.

The simplicity of the proposed solution comes as relief to Marini, whose parents, Frank and Ethel Marini, are buried in the cemetery.

“This will help every rural cemetery in our area,” said Marini, 56, a graduate of Battle Ground High School.

The cemetery’s 96 family plots and 26 single plots were sold by 1979.

His father died in 1983, and his mother started talking about expanding the cemetery in 1985, Marini said. The cemetery association never had enough money to get the land surveyed, however, and everyone who wanted a plot already had one. So the urgency went away.

His mother died in 2004.

Marini joined the association, which meets once a year, six years ago and has been hearing from more people who want to buy plots.

It’s not just the baby boomers, he said, who aren’t sure whether they want to retire in Venersborg or move to a warmer climate. He’s hearing from older residents who want their final resting place to be near their homes.

If commissioners approve the change and the cemetery expands, Marini said it will be a major undertaking for a small cemetery that, with the exception of the addition of a chain-link fence, has sat largely unchanged for 100 years.

“It’s going to be an interesting project,” he said.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.