SAN RAMON, Calif. » The land that Sid Corrie Jr. wants to develop into a 100,000-plot cemetery sits in an unincorporated area of low hills, oak trees, rusting barns and grazing cattle about an hour’s drive east of San Francisco. He envisions an idyllic burial ground with well-landscaped plots, gardens, a reflecting pool, fountains, flowering cherry trees, mausoleums and a chapel. He wants it to be, as he puts it, "a great place to bury Grandma."
But many neighbors of his 220-acre property, about 60 acres of which would be used for the cemetery, are adamantly opposed. They are gearing up for a fight, starting on Tuesday, when the San Ramon City Council will consider the proposal, and again early next year, when Contra Costa County officials will weigh the issue.
Some opponents object because of the water the cemetery would consume amid the continuing drought. Others, who primarily live in a new community of upscale homes about a mile from the site, object for cultural reasons: They are natives of China and India who believe that living near a cemetery — even one that would not be visible from their homes — is taboo.
Jay Yao, who emigrated from China, is the chief organizer of the cemetery opponents and says funerals would cast a pall on the community. "They will be forcing kids to see funeral processions," said Yao, a vice president of quantitative research at Morgan Stanley Capital International. "Children didn’t do something wrong — why do they have to see it at such an early age?"
The cemetery proposal was actually suggested by local officials, who thought the growing city of San Ramon and others nearby should have their own final resting spot. Corrie, a local real estate developer, had originally wanted to build houses on the land, but was stopped by zoning laws. At the request of city leaders, Corrie changed plans and agreed to develop a cemetery instead. That was nine years ago.
"It’s a perfect location," Corrie said, standing on a barren hilltop, part of which would be leveled for burial sites. "It makes this land productive."
But as the permit process dragged on — slowed by California’s stringent environmental regulations and the project’s complexity — the demographics of the area shifted. San Ramon’s population grew to about 75,000 in 2013 from 45,000 in 2000; one-third of the residents are foreign-born.
The proportion of the population that is of Asian descent has more than doubled, to 36 percent from 15 percent in 2000, and many of the Chinese and Indian newcomers have cultural prohibitions against living near a graveyard.
"We really are affected mentally and psychologically," said Angappa Murali, a software engineer at Hitachi Data Systems who is from India. "Most of us are immigrants," he said of his neighbors. "We still have spiritual connections."
Separately, California has endured a drought spanning about three years, and Corrie’s visions of fountains and greenswards have ruffled neighbors concerned about their well water.
Michele Ulrech, a horse rancher in the unincorporated area outside San Ramon, has had to supplement her wells by trucking in water three times a week; she worries that Corrie’s plan — which involves digging more wells on his property — would drain aquifers and force her to import more water. "This is very arid land and always has been," Ulrech said. "Water has always been an issue in this valley."
The push for a cemetery began in earnest in 2005, when the city of San Ramon adopted a resolution calling for plots outside its borders in what is called the Tassajara Valley — where Corrie’s property lies. Because of the new wave of opposition, on Tuesday the San Ramon City Council will consider rescinding that resolution, an action that would send an advisory to the county officials who will decide the matter.
The fate of the development, called Creekside Memorial Park Cemetery, rests with the county because Corrie’s land is in an unincorporated area. County officials, who will hold a public hearing early next year, say their decision will be based on environmental issues, including water and traffic, as well as on the general welfare of residents. "The community has the right to come forward with any concerns they have," said Telma Moreira, a senior county planner overseeing the project.
Although he is no diplomat, Corrie has an answer for every critic. He says that his wells would not drain local aquifers, and that anyone importing water now will have to continue doing so either way. "If you’re trucking water in now, what’s the problem trucking later?" he said.
Regarding the Chinese and Indian residents with spiritual or cultural objections, Corrie said, "That’s malarkey! They came over here and tell us we can’t have a cemetery here?"
He gives no credence to people who moved a in mile or two from the proposed cemetery in the last few years and claimed they were blindsided. "Anyone who didn’t know about it is stupid or should sue his Realtor," Corrie said.
One person who lives about a mile from Corrie’s property, Crystal Lu, a former director of media relations at SAP, said she and her family had "a perfect life" until last year when they learned about the proposed cemetery. Lu, a Chinese native who is now a full-time mother, is a staunch opponent. "You don’t mix the living and the dead together," she said.
Lu and Yao, who are not U.S. citizens, and Murali, who is, live in a planned community full of children and parks. Most residents are Chinese or Indian, drawn to the area by high-tech jobs and good schools. Lu said the cemetery issue had caused her to have a political awakening.
"A graveyard is something of great severity," Lu said. Her family and community do not want to be branded with the stigma of death, she said. "That is not an association I would like to have."
Bill Newman, a retired computer engineer whose property borders Corrie’s, said the opposition from Asian immigrants added a twist to the continuing debate. "Nobody saw this cultural issue coming," he said.
Newman, who in retirement works in artificial intelligence, and his wife, Holly, a retired logistics analyst, have challenged the project for years, saying that the water use would be unsustainable and that mausoleums, a chapel and offices do not belong in an area zoned for agricultural use. They maintain a website with timelines, public documents, a petition signed by 3,000 people and scholarly reports.
"We’re used to creating a grass-roots reaction," said Seth Adams, land conservation director of Save Mount Diablo, an organization dedicated to preserving open space and that opposes the cemetery plan. This time, it was not necessary. The response from the Asian community, he said, "was spontaneous."
But the opponents may not be able to swing local officials to their side. "A lot of people in my community think a cemetery is a great idea," said Candace Andersen, a county supervisor whose constituency includes many of the opponents. She added, "I like cemeteries — if done properly, it could be very nice."
Lu is full of hope. "They have to take in the community’s concern," she said, adding, "We expect our culture will play a big part" in the decision.
Carol Pogash, New York Times