A bill approved Tuesday by the Baltimore County Council allows certain rural areas of the county to be used as natural burial grounds — where bodies can be buried without being embalmed or placed in heavy caskets.
But council members heard an earful from a group of north county residents who said they felt blindsided by the legislation and didn't have time to gather information and voice concerns.
"This deal stinks to high heaven," said Mike Farley, who lives less than a mile from a property in the Hampstead area of Baltimore County where owners want to open Resh Mill Preserve, a natural burial ground.
Farley and others said the only chance they had to testify on the bill was during a mid-afternoon work session last week. On Tuesday, residents' criticism of the bill came during a public comment period at the end of the council meeting, after the vote was taken.
Resh Mill Preserve property owners Deirdre Smith and Doug Carroll hope to offer natural burials on 66 acres of woods and fields. Bodies could be buried directly in the earth, and embalming, caskets that aren't biodegradable and concrete burial vaults would be prohibited. Graves could be marked only with flat stones found on the property.
The bill sets several requirements: land considered for use as a natural burial site must be at least 60 acres, must have an "environmental enhancement" designation and it must be put into permanent preservation with a conservation easement. Also, an administrative law judge must approve a zoning special exception.
Sixteen properties meet the zoning and size requirements, according to the county's Department of Planning.
Currently, cemeteries are not an allowed use for properties with environmental enhancement zoning.
Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat who was lead sponsor the bill, noted that getting a special exception includes a public hearing where opponents can voice their concerns. She said Resh Mill Preserve would also have to follow the state's regulations for cemeteries.
"It isn't going to happen tomorrow. It will have to go through the process and everyone will have their voice," Almond said in an interview.
Councilman Wade Kach, a Cockeysville Republican who represents the Hampstead area, was absent from Tuesday's meeting, as was Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat. The bill passed on a unanimous vote from the five members present.
If approved, Resh Mill Preserve would be the first cemetery in the state offering only natural burials. Bestgate Memorial Park, a traditional cemetery in Annapolis, has a small area for natural burials.