By SCOTT JACKSON
City councillors on Monday raised questions about a proposed $16.4 million expansion of Pine Hill Cemetery, which would add 14,000 interment and inurnment spaces to the West Quincy burial ground, and put off a vote on the project until they receive additional information on the plan.
At Monday’s hearing, David Murphy, the city’s commissioner of natural resources, called the 7.5-acre proposal a “very exciting and historic project” for the city’s cemetery department.
“Tonight’s proposal is the most significant cemetery expansion that this city has done in decades. It will add over 14,000 burial spaces,” Murphy said. “It will also include the city’s first cremation niches to maximize some of the challenges the landscape presents, but also provide additional options to residents as well.”
As part of the expansion, the city would install more than 3,500 double-depth pre-buried vaults, each of which can hold two caskets plus an urn. Spaces for 650 graves would be added to the cemetery’s veterans’ section. More than 3,000 niches, each capable of holding two urns, will also be installed.
In addition, a new welcome center and office building would be constructed near the Willard Street entrance to the facility. A new committal building would be constructed near the Chickatawbut Road entrance, where the current cemetery office is located. A boulder fountain would also be installed in that area.
A pergola gathering area with columbarium walls – where the niches for the urns would be located – would be constructed in the new 7.5-acre section of the cemetery. A veterans’ memorial wall would be installed near existing veterans’ lot within the cemetery and a seating area would be added to the existing part of the cemetery as well.
Murphy said the revenue generated by the project – from the sale of lots and associated burial fees – would pay for its cost. He told councillors each lot in the new area will cost $1,200 plus a $1,000 fee for perpetual maintenance and a $25 fee for the deed. There is also a $1,100 fee for each burial in the lot – that fee could be charged up to three times per lot, twice for casket burials and once for an urn.
The cost for a single lot is currently $850, plus a $500 fee for perpetual care and the $25 deed. The current burial fee is $700.
Currently, lots at Pine Hill are only sold on an as-needed basis. If the expansion project were approved, lots could be sold on a pre-need basis for the first time in decades. Murphy said those sales could begin later this year and he anticipates high demand for the new lots.
“I think there will be a tremendous demand out there, especially because this is really the last spot that the city has for cemetery space,” he said. “I think the lack of supply is going to create a pretty substantial demand for the lots.”
Councillor Anne Mahoney said the administration’s presentation did not include an adequate breakdown of the project’s costs. Scott Salvucci, a project manager with the firm Woodard & Curran, provided a breakdown of the costs after Mahoney raised that concern.
According to Salvucci’s presentation, the cemetery expansion would cost $13.6 million, including $4.75 million for earthwork, $2.5 million for the installation of burial vaults, $2.5 million for paving and other hardscaping, $1.25 million for retaining walls, $750,000 for the columbarium walls, $500,000 for landscaping and $500,000 for the boulder fountain and other artwork. The remaining $2.7 million would pay for the welcome center and committal building; those costs were not further broken down.
Mahoney said that financial presentation did not contain enough information and was only provided to councillors at the finance committee meeting and not beforehand.
“I’m still concerned. This is broken out and there are six lines that are broken out,” Mahoney said. “Is everybody OK with that? I’m not because it came to us at 6:30, the first finance meeting, and I’ve been asking for breakouts.”
“I would have expected a little more detail,” she added.
Mahoney later questioned the ratio of graves to niches in the proposal. More and more people are being cremated, she said, and it would make sense to have more niches than burial vaults in the expansion.
Murphy responded that the city would have the ability to add more niches in the future, at Pine Hill and at other cemeteries.
Councillor Nina Liang said she was concerned about inflation and asked if the $16.4 million would include enough funds to account for rising construction costs.
“Labor is still exponentially expensive right now so are parts…materials and everything,” she said. “I am hoping with any construction project we build in contingencies. I would like to know what that contingency amount is and also if we are building in typical construction contingencies or factoring in the fact that everything has increased the last two years.”
Salvucci said the costs include a typical construction contingency of approximately 5 to 10 percent. He was confident the contingency would be enough to cover potential increases in costs given how advanced the planning for the project is.
Salvucci also provided a timeline for the project. He said bids will be opened on April 15 and construction could begin in mid-May, likely between Mothers’ Day and Memorial Day. The project should be substantially finished by November 2023 though final paving might have to wait until the following spring.
Liang also asked Murphy how long it had been since the city increased its burial fees – which are set by the Cemetery Board of Managers – and suggested they could be raised again in the future to keep up with inflation. Murphy said the new fees were set in April 2021 based on costs at comparable cemeteries but could not say when they were last set prior to that.
“We were far behind, I think, similar cemeteries when we did our analysis, so we actually had to come up a substantial amount,” Murphy said. “I’d have to do research to give you a specific answer, but I think it had been sometime since those fees had been increased.”
Ward 3 Councillor Ian Cain asked about maintenance costs at the cemetery moving forward. Murphy said the pre-buried vaults would help reduce operating costs in the future, because graves won’t have to be dug when they are needed, while an additional worker might be needed for things like mowing grass and trimming plants.
Cain said he was prepared to support the bond request.
“This is a necessary project,” he said. “Having these available at Pine Hill, I think, is a big deal. I’m certainly in support of it and I appreciate the presentation tonight.”
Ward 6 Councillor William Harris said he knows Quincy residents who have struggled to find places in Quincy to bury family members. He made a motion to pass the bond out of committee.
“I’m thrilled with the fact that we’re opening up more spaces for our residents,” Harris said. “I respect my fellow councillors who have questions about this but at this point I’m satisfied, so I’m going to make a motion to approve.”
After Harris spoke, Ward 2 Councillor Anthony Andronico said he would like to see further details about the project before voting on it.
“I absolutely believe the city should be pursuing the expansion while at the same time I do understand some of the concerns that my colleagues have raised about some of the details in that and I do agree with them that I would really like to see a little bit more of a breakdown on what those costs are going to,” Andronico said.
“We do have a duty to the taxpayers to fully explore the options before us and I would love to see maybe another meeting on this.”
Harris then withdrew his motion to approve the bond and said the item would stay in committee.
Ward 5 Councillor Charles Phelan Jr., who is the chairperson of the finance committee, said he would provide the administration with a list of questions from his colleagues that could be answered before the next committee meeting is held. That meeting has not been scheduled.