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Cemetery Master Plan gets swift approval, some add-ons

Monday, June 1, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Although the city’s 511-page Historic Cemeteries Master Plan has gotten quick approval from relevant boards and commissions before heading to City Council, several bodies have tacked on their own concerns along the way.

The master plan, which considers the future of five historic municipal cemeteries in Austin, most recently received unanimous approval from Parks and Recreation Board members Tuesday. (Board member Lynn Osgood was absent from the meeting.) The plan will now make stops at the Planning Commission and the Open Space, Environmental and Sustainability Committee in June before it hits the Council dais most likely in the fall.

But even though the plan appears exhaustive (the directives concerning trees, for instance, fill roughly 120 pages), various boards and commissions have made a point to add on yet more items.

“We actually have an appendix that’s going to be added to the very end before we go to Council in the fall, which will show the board-and-commission process,” said Kim McKnight, a preservation planner with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. The appendix serves as a depository for additional comments from city boards and commissions plus various other stakeholders.

The Urban Forestry Board received the first briefing on the master plan, eventually voting in favor with a count of 6-0-1. (Board member Nicholas Classen abstained.)

Before sending the plan to the next board or commission, members added various recommendations. These recommendations include improvement of irrigation systems at all of the cemeteries and a directive to heap mulch and compost onto trees during periods of drought.

At the forestry board’s meeting in April, Chair Christopher Kite said there was a basic tension underlying recommendations meant to keep trees healthy: the inherent conflict between the desire for a serene setting and the damage a grave can inflict on its surroundings.

“When I go visit my father’s grave, I want the big, beautiful live oak,” said Kite. “I want all that. But you can’t have a big, beautiful live oak right there (with) 100 graves destroying the root system.”

Kite suggested that the plan include a directive to plant new trees where there are already existing graves – therefore allowing the trees to create root systems around the graves already in place, ensuring a higher survival rate.

The recommendation eventually adopted is less specific, indicating that the planting of new trees be no lower than a second priority in the plan. The hope is that fewer new trees, with greater flexibility regarding where they grow roots, can provide the desired idyllic setting.

The Historic Landmark Commission took up the master plan next, voting to support it with a unanimous vote last Monday. The count was 4-0, with commissioners John Rosato and Terri Myers absent from the meeting and Commissioner Leslie Wolfenden-Guidry off the dais.

The plan passed with another added resolution: that the Parks and Recreation Department consider extending historic landmark status to three of the five cemeteries, including Evergreen Cemetery (in East Austin, at Airport Boulevard and 12th Street), Plummers Cemetery (also in East Austin, on Springdale Road, between Santa Anna Street and 12th Street), and Austin Memorial Park Cemetery (next to MoPac Expressway in North Austin, on Hancock Drive). The remaining two historic cemeteries already have this designation in some form.

While the Parks and Recreation Board did not tack on any of its own resolutions when it approved the plan last Tuesday, Chair Jane Rivera did acknowledge the lengthy consideration these cemeteries have gotten both from city and non-city groups. The project began in 2012 with the parks board’s formation of a working group dedicated to the issue.

City staff clapped after board members approved the master plan. “I feel almost like we just gave birth to a baby,” said Rivera. “We’ve been working on this for almost as long as I’ve been chair of this board.”

The Historic Cemeteries Master Plan heads next to the Planning Commission.

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