Selma Cemetery District aims to expand outside city limits

With a fast-approaching need for another cemetery, the Selma Cemetery District is working with the county to receive approval for a new development

The Selma Cemetery District offers stone niches for people to place the cremated remains of their loved ones into instead of a grave at the Floral Memorial Park in Selma April 29, 2024. (Serena Bettis)
The Selma Cemetery District offers stone niches for people to place the cremated remains of their loved ones into instead of a grave at the Floral Memorial Park in Selma April 29, 2024. (Serena Bettis)
Serena Bettis
Published May 5, 2024  • 
10:00 am

SELMA – At the intersection of Bethel and Nebraska Avenues, just a mile outside Selma city limits, sits acres of grape vines that the Selma Cemetery District hopes to turn into a new cemetery — an oasis where residents can visit their loved ones’ final resting place. 

Fresno County struck down the district’s first application to develop a new cemetery on this land nearly 10 years ago, but now, as the city’s cemeteries continue to fill up, the district is trying again. While it has been a frustrating process for some involved with the cemetery district, they are feeling positive about the work they put into it this time around, District Board of Trustees Chair Alan Langstraat said. 

“We’re hoping that calmer heads will prevail, and just the logic of the whole situation — here’s a cemetery who’s filling up and they want to add some acreage,” Langstraat said. “How can you object to that? I just don’t know.” 

In order to develop a new cemetery, the district must obtain an unrestricted conditional use permit (CUP) from the county. Back in 2015, when the district first submitted its permit application, the Fresno County Planning Commission denied the request on a 6-1 vote. On appeal, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors took the same position and on Nov. 3, 2015, voted 4-1 to uphold the commission’s decision. 

According to county records of the decisions, both the planning commission and the board could not find that the proposed use would not have an adverse impact on neighboring property, a requirement for approving a CUP. Langstraat said multiple people who owned and worked on land next to the site had protested the CUP, citing a negative impact on farming operations and lowered property values. 

In letters sent to the county in 2015, farmers listed concerns about how the noise, dust and chemical drift created by their operations could disrupt funeral services, and said their own responsibility to limit those disruptions would place a burden on their businesses.

After the CUP was denied, the district looked for other property within or just outside of Selma that would be suitable for a cemetery. When they could not find anything that would work, they decided to apply again for a permit on the same land, this time working to be more thorough with their application by talking to as many neighboring property owners as possible, Langstraat said. 

“The basic argument is we’re a cemetery district, we need some land; our job is to bury people and we can’t do that without land,” Langstraat said. “We’re not trying to rock any boat or disenfranchise anybody. It won’t raise anybody’s taxes, we just need a place, and it’s close to Selma — it’s only a mile from the city limits — and some of the neighbors are very much in favor.”

Digging out a new cemetery

Although there are other forms of burial that save space and are gaining popularity, such as placing cremated remains into stone niches, the need for a new cemetery is imminent; Selma’s newest cemetery, Floral Memorial Park, opened in the 1920s. Cemetery District General Manager Sarai Ramirez said that as of March 31, there are just over 3,000 plots available — 2,508 at the Floral Memorial Park and 552 at the West Cemetery.

“When you compare that to the population that we have, it’s nothing,” Ramirez said. “I know we still have a few years left at this cemetery, but if we get another pandemic like COVID, it’s going to reduce our numbers significantly, too; so there’s a big need for a new cemetery.” 

Based on past discussions and estimates, Ramirez said that once the CUP is approved and development begins, it could be three to five years before any burials happen at the new cemetery. The district already has comprehensive plans and designs for the new cemetery — put together by Fresno-based landscape architect Paul Saito — but will need to clear the grape vines, put in curbs, gutters and paved roads, possibly build an office and set up everything needed to take care of the grounds, Langstraat said. 

The new cemetery is designed with a veteran section, a baby section and trees that won’t use too much water. Additionally, the cemetery — which would be more than 17 acres — is designed to be built in two phases, so the first phase would keep burial plots in the center, leaving a buffer between the cemetery and the surrounding farmland. 

“It’s just going to be beautiful and useful and last for probably 100 years,” Langstraat said.

Langstraat said the district has been planning for a new cemetery for decades, making sure to put away funds for capital projects so that they don’t have to borrow money for development. Ramirez said the permit application itself has cost more than $15,000, and the district paid approximately $600,000 for the land in 2014. 

“You can’t just wait until you run out of room and then try to scrounge up a million dollars to buy some property,” Langstraat said. “So it’s to the credit of the people of Selma and the cemetery board of Selma that they know the rules and the requirements and planned ahead so that this whole thing can go off without a hitch.” 

The district submitted its current CUP application in September 2021 and has worked with Fresno County staff to provide the information needed for the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) analysis since then. More recently, they have been addressing comments and questions submitted during review of the initial study of the project, released in December 2023.

A spokesperson for the Fresno County Department of Public Works and Planning said that county staff provide a recommendation to the planning commission to approve or deny the permit, but it is up to the commission to make a determination “based not only on the recommendation, but also in consideration of public testimony and the commission’s independent judgment.” 

Fresno County is “tentatively targeting” July for the planning commission’s public hearing on the CUP, but that is dependent on when the cemetery district submits additional information needed by the county, the spokesperson said.

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter