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CHANGES RESTRICT CREMATORIES

A key limit requires a 500-foot distance between crematories and residential areas.

City commissioners unanimously approved changes to city rules aimed at keeping new crematories away from homes.

Their decision Tuesday night comes 10 months after commissioners denied a controversial proposal to build one of Pinellas County's largest crematories at Serenity Gardens Memorial Park, about 100 feet from nearby homes.

For months, a vocal network of crematory opponents had urged Largo leaders to change city rules.

"We did it," resident Stanley Gams said after the vote.

"We fixed it for the future," said his neighbor, Tom Cardy.

There was little discussion before the vote, but Mayor Pat Gerard teased a handful of residents who showed up.

"I hate it that we're not going to see you guys anymore," she said. "I feel like we're all friends now."

The new rules limit crematories to industrial properties and require a 500-foot distance between crematories and residential properties. Before, sites classified as institutional allowed cemeteries with crematories.

The changes also set guidelines for the size of lots required for such facilities. The city's industrial land use categories require a minimum lot size of 20,000 square feet. Basically, that would limit facilities to 13,000 square feet on sites that size.

For the most part, the new restrictions would limit crematories to areas of central and eastern Largo near Ulmerton Road and Roosevelt Boulevard.

The issue first arose in June 2005, when Serenity Gardens' owners proposed building a 13,175-square-foot facility, with a 5,600-square-foot crematory, on the southeast corner of the cemetery's property on Wilcox Road, just north of Mia Circle.

The proposed three-furnace crematory would have served nine funeral homes in Pinellas and Hillsborough.

For months, hundreds of residents from Athenian Gardens, Kensington Oaks, Indian Oaks Trail and other nearby neighborhoods urged city leaders to deny the request. They staged protests near the cemetery, wrote city leaders and spoke at City Hall.

Staff initially recommended approval of the crematory but then-City Manager Steve Stanton suggested the matter be brought before the commission.

Now residents are waiting for the result of an appeal filed by cemetery owner SCI Funeral Services of Florida in November. The decision is pending in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court. Neighbors filed a brief supporting the city.

"Hopefully, we'll get the right answer," Cardy said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or lorri@sptimes.com.

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