Driving on Brook Street in Wellesley recently, I was surprised to see a major project taking place at the 47-acre, Woodlawn Cemetery, privately owned by the Woodland Cemetery Board of Trustees. The usual cemetery stillness was being shattered by earth-moving equipment, and a once-thick buffer zone of trees and vegetation between the grounds and Brook Street was looking mighty thin, indeed. I stopped by and found Thomas Doherty, Superintendent of the cemetery, and Sam Sicchio, construction manager, and they told me that the reason for these major topographical changes is simple: the cemetery is running out of space to lay people to rest and is therefore adding approximately 2,500 new grave sites.
According to Phillip Rolph, Clerk & Director of Woodlawn Cemetery, at a Wellesley Zoning Board of Appeals meeting earlier this year, by making use of the outfit’s 5,000 square feet along the north side of Brook Street, the cemetery will be able to continue to serve its purpose for 25 – 30 more years, given that it inters about 80 people per year.
The project, which went before the Zoning Board of Appeals in early 2017 and was approved, involves preparation for additional grave sites through clearing existing wooded areas followed by filling, and regrading at those locations. Paved drives will be installed for access to these new grave sites. To get a visual perspective, the cemetery as a whole is bounded by Brook Street to the south, Fuller Brook to the east, the residential properties of Swarthmore Road to the north, and the residential properties of Radcliffe Road and Hobart Road to the west.
According to Attorney David Himmelberger, who represented the Proprietors of Woodlawn Cemetery and went before the Zoning Board of Appeals in January with a request for Site Plan Approval, the project was being pursued because the cemetery was running out of grave sites, with an inventory that would probably last less than a year.
The cemetery project is not considered an expansion because there has been no purchase of additional land by Woodlawn’s Board of Trustees. The scope of the changes is considered that of doing internal improvements on land already owned. According to Town property records, the last time the cemetery acquired land was 1967, when it obtained eight acres. The project will be contained to the 5,000 square feet, and there will be no change or enlargement to the maintenance area, and no lighting.
Big concerns for neighbors and the Town have been stormwater management. The nearby Fuller Brook is considered a riverfront area, and surrounding areas are considered wetland resource areas. According Jim White, Civil Engineer at H.M. Moore, the firm contracted to conduct the stormwater run-off analysis and other environmental impacts, the project will not alter any areas or disturb any land within the 100-foot wetland buffer zone or the 200-foot riverfront buffer zone, as required to be in compliance with Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection Stormwater Management Standards. Moore said that the project will include a water quality basin in the southerly portion of the site and a water quality swale along the eastern side, and that almost all the water flows east toward Fuller Brook, which is over 200 feet from the project.
Neighbors are also concerned about the loss of trees and vegetation, the overriding concern being the dramatic change in the visuals. One neighbor said that the cemetery operations were already fairly intolerable because of the perpetual care that goes on. Another neighbor commented that because of the need for access to the new grave sites, a road will be literally be added to her backyard.
Neighbors’ requests that new trees be planted as soon as possible were on one hand addressed, but no guarantees on a timeframe were offered. To a large extent, the neighbors are just going to have to wait for the kind of mature trees that grace the rest of the property because of the way things work with cemeteries. First the graves in an area get filled up. Then the trees get planted. It can’t be done the other way around because the interring process would jeopardize a tree’s root system if the trees go in before the deceased.
In an effort to maintain good neighborly relations, however, Woodlawn agreed to install and maintain a vegetative buffer zone between the cemetery and four Swarthmore Road abutters, and to consult with the Wellesley Natural Resources Commission to determine what would be most appropriate for this purpose.