BY BRIAN McGILLIVARY
TRAVERSE CITY — A Catholic parish apparently must choose between desecrating grave sites or buying land from a Peninsula Township official in order to build a new church.
St. Joseph Catholic Church wants to erect a church and parish center on Center Road adjacent to its 114-year-old cemetery. In 2010, Peninsula Township's board of trustees ordered the church to erect a cedar split-rail fence along the northern edge of the cemetery as part of its zoning approval.
Church official' subsequent site plan showed the fence with a three-foot setback as required by zoning. But it didn't show that the fence ran lengthwise down the center of 16 grave sites, five of which are occupied.
Church officials realized their mistake and hoped the township would allow them to ignore the setback and build the fence along the property line.
"We cannot desecrate a cemetery by putting a fence straight through a grave site," said Dave Sanger, St. Joseph's business manager. "This is consecrated ground; it's been blessed."
St. Joseph wants to downsize its project because of financial concerns. But before church officials can obtain zoning approval for the revised project, they need to obtain a variance from the township's zoning board of appeals.
The ZBA tabled the request early this month. Their apparent lack of receptiveness surprised Sanger, considering the difficulties the setback created.
The burial plots in question are six feet wide and 12 feet long. Coffins can go anywhere inside that rectangle, Sanger said. The oldest site dates to 1918, and the church doesn't keep records of exactly where remains are buried within the plot.
But it's not just the idea of fence posts hitting burial sites that the church finds unacceptable.
"Families agonize for days over the selection of a grave site," said Sanger, who also is the cemetery sexton. "Can you imagine coming back six months later and finding there's a split-rail fence over dad. We can't do that."
The fence came as a compromise in the church project after neighbors Bill and Monica Hoffman complained about potential trespassing and cemetery litter blowing onto their farm. The Hoffmans wanted a wire-mesh cyclone fence, but the township board decided a split-rail fence would be more attractive.
Monica Hoffman, who also is Peninsula Township's clerk, could not be reached for comment. A message left for Bill Hoffman was not returned.
The church could build a fence along the property line with permission from neighbors. But the Hoffmans still want a cyclone fence and won't agree to a deal.
In August, Bill Hoffman suggested during a meeting with the church council that the church buy a strip of land from him to resolve the setback question. He sent a letter to the church asking to meet with two representatives to discuss the sale, but said he never heard back.
One ZBA member chastised the church for not more aggressively pursing a land purchase.
"You say you want to solve this, buy it," ZBA member Steven Love said, according to meeting minutes. "It's that simple."
Other members agreed and told church representatives to work it out with the Hoffmans.
"We are looking forward to the church's proposal as to how much property they need, along with a meaningful offer to purchase," said Edgar Roy, the Hoffmans' attorney.
Sanger, who once chaired the ZBA, called its members' direction to buy land "unusual.
"It's not in the purview of the zoning board to negotiate a settlement based on economics," he said.
Representatives said the church is willing to purchase land from the Hoffmans and are waiting for them to set a price. But negotiations are stalled while each side waits for the other to make the first offer.