Farm Horizons, September 2002

Picha's dream for private cemetery becomes reality

By Ryan Gueningsman

All Ralph Picha wanted for himself, his wife, Carol, and their descendants, was to be buried on the land that his ancestors settled in 1874.

What he got was a fight.

He had the idea for quite some time, but his interest was spurred when he read an article about former Star Tribune staff writer Dennis Cassano, who was buried on his own land near Lake Maria State Park near Monticello.

"He had 40 acres of land by there (Lake Maria), so he worked out some deal with the parks department where if he would donate 40 acres of land to the park, he could be buried on that land," Picha said.

"He went right to the state with that," Picha said.

Minnesota has two statutes that involve cemeteries. Statute 306 deals with commercial cemeteries, and Stature 307 deals with private cemeteries.

"Three hundred seven said that any individual or company can start a cemetery on their land, but that it has to be surveyed, and it has to be recorded on the deed," he said.

Picha thought he was good to go. He began working with an attorney, who told him that he also needed a conditional use permit (CUP) from McLeod County.

"We went to the courthouse and said we needed a CUP, and we paid the $219.50," he said.

A CUP must be first approved by the township, then the planning and zoning commission, and finally the county board.

"When we first went to the township meeting, the chairman was gone, because he was on vacation," Picha said. "At that time, no one had any objections, but it had to be discussed with the chairman."

At the next meeting, Picha met some difficulties.

"It became a total different meeting," he said.

The township board couldn't reach a decision, so it sent it on to planning and zoning without recommendation, he said.

When Picha reached the first planning and zoning meeting with his cemetery on the agenda, he was met with questions, such as how is it going to be maintained; is there a big enough trust fund; how many plots there would be; and whether a vault would be used.

Picha had answers for all of their questions, noting that there would be a $10,000 trust fund set up, it would be 72 plots for his descendants, and that vaults weren't a state requirement.

The planning and zoning board deadlocked as well, reaching no official recommendation. It passed it onto the county board.

"The county commissioners kicked it around for awhile," Picha said.

The county thought that Picha was not using agricultural land properly by putting a cemetery there.

At its meeting Feb. 20, 2001 the county board denied Picha's application "due to incompatibility with current use of the land and to avoid setting a precedent of allowing private cemeteries," court documents said.

Picha still wasn't going to give up without a fight.

He and his attorney sued the county ­ and won.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned the county's decision, and on June 26, McLeod County approved Picha's CUP, providing he met the following eight guidelines:

The conditions are as follows:

· A $5,000 perpetual care fund is to be established, with the gain on the fund to be reinvested in the fund. The fund will be flagged and the county notified if the cemetery association draws on the fund, and the cemetery association will need to approach the board if funds are to be used for a specific purpose.

· Robert Hantge of Dobratz/Hantge Funeral Chapel will serve as the non-family member on the cemetery board. If he is no longer able to serve in that capacity, the cemetery board and the county will need to agree on his replacement.

· The cemetery board will follow all state and federal guidelines regarding private cemeteries.

· Grave liners shall be used.

· A perpetual easement will be drawn up from the township road to the cemetery to guarantee access to the cemetery.

· Flat grave markers shall be used.

· A 10-foot buffer is required around the perimeter of the cemetery, and a 10-foot strip is required down the center of the cemetery for access.

· The four corners of the cemetery will be surveyed and the cemetery board will determine the four corners of each plot.

"I could have dropped it," Picha said. "But I knew I was right."

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