Hotly debated Contra Costa cemetery on hold, for now

After hearing from a procession of speakers that extended roughly the length of a funeral caravan, Contra Costa County’s Planning Commission delayed voting Tuesday, Dec.16, on a plan to build the area’s first stand-alone Jewish cemetery.

The agency decided instead to continue hearing testimony on the Gan Shalom burial ground at its Jan. 13 meeting.

With only a two-year supply of Jewish grave sites left at the secular Oakmont Memorial Park and Mortuary in Lafayette, representatives of five local synagogues have been scrambling for years to locate a cemetery site east of the Caldecott Tunnel.

“We’re about two to three years out from not having a place for Jewish burial,” warned Rabbi Gordon Freeman of Conservative Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek. He said efforts to find a suitable spot began some 20 years ago.

On Tuesday night, the county’s planning board held a three-hour hearing in Martinez on the request to build an 83-acre cemetery on a remote piece of pastureland north of Lafayette. A standing-room-only crowd of some 200 people heard impassioned testimony from more than two dozen speakers on both sides.

“The Jewish population of our county has grown,” testified Rabbi Roberto Graetz of Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah in describing the need, dating back to biblical days, for Jews to locate “consecrated ground on which to bury our dead.”

But foes warned that the graveyard would lead to water shortages in local wells, traffic hazards on winding rural roads, vandalism — and even the potential of plague if cemetery lawns became infested with gophers. Still others voiced fears that the proposed cemetery would open the gates to Blackhawk-style development in their relatively untouched valley.

“Consider the needs of the living over those of the deceased,” urged Chris Bearden, a nearby resident and stable owner. The Briones Hills Preserve Alliance, a coalition of local residents, cyclists, equestrians and others, presented the commission with a petition bearing 1,000 signatures opposing the cemetery.

County staff, however, is recommending approval of the cemetery. Even if the planning commission OKs the plan next month, observers predicted that cemetery foes would appeal the decision to the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors.

Proponents, meanwhile, say time and space are running out for them.

Describing the cemetery as a potential good neighbor, they said their water studies concluded that the cemetery’s well wouldn’t draw water from neighboring properties.

Edward Shaffer, a Walnut Creek attorney representing Gan Shalom, estimated that the cemetery would have only three or four funerals weekly. And the site, he said, would be closed on Saturdays for Shabbat.

“It’s a very low-key activity,” he added.

Melody Howe Weintraub, a Lafayette resident, maintained that existing auto traffic whizzes along Bear Creek Road “a lot faster than any procession.”

The proposed site on Bear Creek is actually the third location eyed seriously by Gan Shalom. In recent years, earlier plans to build a cemetery in Hercules and in north Livermore were scuttled by opposition over land use.

“It’s been a long road to get this far,” said Gan Shalom president Frank Winer.