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By Kirsten Andelman

Photos courtesy: SD Crescentwood Services

Photo: Newly dozed driveway, with Ben Good's home/barn in background

April 17, 2024 (Pine Valley, CA) -- Neighbors have secured nearly 1,800 signatures on a petition opposing plans to build a cemetery on 38 acres of land about 2.5 miles east of La Posta Ranch, just south of Interstate 8 and Old Highway 80. The cemetery proposed by SD Crescentwood Services would provide burial space for Muslims in San Diego County, which currently has no Muslim cemetery. 

Residents’ primary concern is over potential groundwater contamination, since the graveyard would be over the EPA-designated sole-source aquifer that residents in several backcountry communities rely upon for well water. The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported on cemeteries’ potential impacts on public health, when close to aquifers or other water sources.

Billie Jo Jannen, Chair of the Campo-Lake Morena Community Planning Group (CLMCPG)  is appalled that the project is proposed over the aquifer that provides groundwater for rural residents reliant upon well water for drinking, bathing, and irrigation. “It seems a little scandalous, but there are no ordinance protections for cemetery siting over groundwater, despite the known dangers of graveyard effluents,” she told ECM.

The proposed site sits above the Campo/Cottonwood Creek Aquifer, which is designated as a “Sole Source Aquifer” by the Environmental Protection Agency. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act” of 1974, no federal dollars are available for projects that threaten to contaminate Sole Source Aquifers.

The County Planning Commission must get feedback from the local Community Planning Group prior to voting on the project.  If the Planning Commission votes to approve, the Major Use Permit application will go up to the County Board of Supervisors for a vote on final approval.  

“It’s permittable under the current zoning,” county planner Jae Roland-Chase told the Campo Lake Morena Community Planning Group (CPG) about the proposed cemetery at its May 2023 meeting, where public comment was exclusively about groundwater concerns. “There are no zoning changes required; it just requires a Major Use Permit.”

The Major Use Permit Application proposes that 15 acres be preserved as open space, 16 acres be used for graves and driveways, and that approximately 6 acres of ravine area be protected for drainage.

SD Crescentwood Services, the non-profit formed to build the cemetery, says they plan to bury about four bodies per month.  In a recent interview with ECM, Crescentwood Chair Naser Alameddin said the bodies would be encased in cement or concrete, regardless of historical burial practices in other Muslim cemeteries

“We’ll do whatever we need to in order to protect the land and the groundwater,” said Alameddin said. 

But Jannen disputes the number of burials claimed. “This project is massive—per their own estimate, 350 (bodies) per year in their (website) advertising” she says. That would amount to 30 burials per month, not the four per month claimed by Crescentwood.

Community Planners Voice Concerns 

In a letter to County planners and supervisors, the Campo-Lake Morena CPG called the project application incomplete because “SD Crescentwood Cemetery is also planning a second phase that is even more impactful...The community and project neighbors deserve to see full studies on the cumulative impacts of the whole project.”

The rural planning group has this to say on potential water pollution. “Cemeteries in general are risky over groundwater, and nothing we have seen indicates that the local groundwater would be immune to the effects of pollution from 350 decomposing bodies per year. No local studies have been carried out on the effects of cemetery effluent on local groundwater. In addition to testing the speed at which foreign materials move into groundwater and out to neighboring wells, the proponents should be required to provide full testing of groundwater quality under local cemeteries to learn what bacteria, chemicals and heavy metals.”

Crescentwood Shares Details, Cites Need For Muslim Cemetery

According to Alameddin, no buildings or structures are planned (aside from restrooms) for the site, as he said Muslims don’t customarily use human-made structures such as crypts or mausoleums.  He said that after a death, their plan is to hold prayer services and body preparation activities at one of the county’s approximate 16 mosques. The largest of those - the Islamic Center of San Diego, which has locations in Clairemont and in El Cajon -- will take the lead, at least initially, Alameddin said.

Alameddin also said the rural nature of the site -- combined with the stunning mountain views -- make the site ideal for mourners seeking a tranquil location to be in nature.  The cemetery would appear “meadow-like” – with no grass or lawns, he said, adding that native plants would be preserved and replenished, and the graves would be marked with “just a simple plaque” placed flat on the ground above.  

Photo: 1,000 foot well on proposed burial site

Islamic burials are traditionally done within 24 hours of death, based on a belief that the soul is imperiled if the body is not returned to a state of nature quickly enough.

Crescentwood’s non-profit board is comprised of representatives from several of the county’s major mosques. Alameddin said they formed over a common concern for the lack of Muslim cemeteries – and cemeteries in general -- across Southern California.  Greenwood Cemetery and other major cemeteries in San Diego County, have run out of space and are no longer selling graves, Alameddin told the CLMCPG public meeting last May, and thus Crescentwood has been looking for a cemetery site for the last several years.

Cemeteries across the nation have become overcrowded. Nationwide, communities are running out of grave space, despite the growing popularity of cremation.  Some – including several in New York state -- have even begun burying new bodies above old ones.

Efforts to build Muslim cemeteries have faced fervent community opposition in Texas, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Some courts have ruled for the cemeteries. In Stafford County Virginia, the Department of Justice intervened when county officials changed zoning laws after a Muslim cemetery was proposed, and a Judge found that the County had violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which prevents land use rules being used as a pretext for discriminatory exclusion.

But no one in the community is enthusiastic about the idea of a cemetery, which they associate with suburban sprawl. “We’re a bunch of homesteaders out here,” said the closest neighbor Ben Good, about the rural-zoned area.  

County Action

In its “Scoping Letter” sent out last October in response to the application for a Major Use Permit, the San Diego County Planning Commission staff told Crescentwood that a lot of work had to be done before they could bring it to a vote: In addition to rejecting the group’s proposal for portable restroom facilities at the site, the County demanded advanced hydrology studies be done to determine if there is any risk to groundwater.

The County Planning Commission is required to solicit feedback and public comment from the local Community Planning Group prior to voting on the project.  If they approve it, then the application will be sent up the chain for the County Board of Supervisors to vote on.  

No dates have been set yet for either vote, but the Campo Lake Morena CPG plans to discuss the issue again at their meeting on April 29, 2024.

Opposition Focuses On Groundwater

Concerns raised publicly have been for the groundwater below, and whether the buried bodies pose a risk of contamination.  

The site is above the Campo/Cottonwood Creek Aquifer, which is federally designated as a “single source” aquifer by a 1984 EPA ruling that provided protections to people dependent only on groundwater.

During public comment periods neighbors asked if pacemakers, metals, chemotherapy drugs – or even communicable disease – could leach into the groundwater. Others noted that Muslim burials entail freshly deceased bodies being buried directly into the ground, and that -- like with Jewish burials – embalming fluids are not used. However, this latter concern would be alleviated by encasing the bodies in concrete, as Alameddin described. Traditionally, Muslim burials would place bodies directly into the ground, without caskets. But Alameddin said there is great variation to Muslim burial practices around the world.  

Neighbors insist they are not biased against Muslims, and say that they would oppose any large cemetery over their drinking water supply. Indeed, some Muslim burial practices have an environmental advantage over those of many other cultures.

“The one thing that is positive for us and our water supply is that Muslims generally do not embalm bodies for local burial, using formaldehyde and many other toxic chemicals that will leach into the aquifers,” wrote neighbor Pamela Haas on a local community group’s Facebook page where the cemetery project was being discussed.

In a dispute over a Muslim cemetery in Stafford County, Virginia in 2018, neighbors expressed similar fears.  Cemetery planners said bodies would not go into a traditional “coffin,” but rather into something called a “poly-vault” – a polymer vessel manufactured in North Carolina.

In the Virginia case, the Department of Justice Civil Rights’ Division accused the county of using groundwater fears as a mask for religious discrimination.  In its complaint, the DOJ cited engineering studies showing that body burial was far less risky than other, commonly tolerated uses, such as agriculture and septic systems.  The Judge agreed, and ordered Stafford County to issue permits for cemetery construction.

Dr. Wes Danskin, the San Diego Hydrogeology Project Chief at the U.S. Geologic Survey, said fears for the groundwater were mostly unfounded, as groundwater contamination can be monitored on an ongoing basis.

“There is a lot of stuff to be concerned about, but the remedy of testing will be enlightening,” said Danskin, who has worked for the USGS for over 40 years.  “A reasonable solution is to put a well in the center [of the cemetery] and test it periodically, and if you don’t have contaminants there, then you probably don’t have it 1000 feet away.”

But Danskin said it is very common for people to voice fears about groundwater in cases of otherwise unpopular projects.  “If you’re concerned about a cemetery, you ought to be concerned about horses, and about your own septic tank,” he added. 

But the CLMPG letter retorts, “It’s noteworthy that we residents can’t even bury a large animal without a county permit, yet county staff are being quite lenient with a project that involves many more tons of potential effluent than a single dead horse.”


Karem Elhams, a Crescentwood board member who holds an engineering degree from San Diego State University, was also dismissive of groundwater concerns when he spoke before the CPG.  “There are dead animals, wildlife, creatures that die, and it takes centuries for that water to seep down into the ground,” Elhams said. “We have farming land that uses nitrates, that over time gets into ground water. For us to say the [buried] bodies immediately contaminate the groundwater: It’s like searching Google and getting your information from there.”


Elhams urged all of the stakeholders to wait for the scientists to opine on risk before making any decisions. “It takes forever to hit groundwater,” he said. “I respectfully disagree that this is going to contaminate groundwater.” 


Newly Broken Ground Has Nearest Neighbors Seeing “Hog Wild”

Ben Good, who lives across the street from the project, says he is afraid his home will lose its value, and that the new owners have shrugged off his many concerns. Good says he initially offered to sell Crescentwood developers some of his land, but he felt insulted when one of them mocked his belief in the value of his land.  

Good also said Planning Commission staffer Roland-Chase had repeatedly assured him that “no ground would be broken” until permits were issued -- but then did an about-face this past September, when she emailed him to say the County had given Crescentwood permission to build an access road so they could conduct further testing.

“The County changed mid-stream,” said Good, who awoke to the sound of bulldozers early this past January, and looked out his front window to see an excavator and other equipment building a new driveway.  A contractor himself, he said he had never seen construction allowed to begin before permits were issued.  

Good pointed to large piles of unearthed manzanita, red shank and chapparal alongside the new road -- laying right across Old Highway 80 from his own driveway.  He said most of the surrounding land was dense with native flora, some of which he believed were protected species.

“You don’t get to go build your driveways before you do your environmental studies, I’ve never seen that,” he said. “They don’t know what habitat may have already been bulldozed through [when they built the road].” 

Frustrated, Good’s next move was to put four pigs at the closest property line – a move soon noted by Alameddin. Ironically, Good said the survey work done by Crescentwood confirmed that he owned more of the hillside than he had realized, and that he then decided to utilize it. 

“A hillside is great for hogs, because it keeps it from getting too muddy,” he said. “It helps their musculature, going up and down the hill, which makes for good meat.”

The Muslim faith considers pigs to be unclean creatures, and their religion prohibits eating pork.

Ironically, Good, long active in 4-H, says he’s had hogs on different parts of his property “on and off” for the last 20 years. But he admitted that he didn’t have pigs on his property at all for several years prior to learning of plans for a cemetery. 

“I just don’t want to live across the street from 26,000 bodies,” he concluded.

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Faulty logic

The statements justifying that testing the groundwater is the solution are poor logic. If bodies are in the ground and then found to be contaminating the water supply, what do they plan on doing then as a remedy? The water is already contaminated, so are they then going to dig up all the corpses or start trucking water to the affected wells? Saying that we live with other contaminants such as nitrates doesn't justify adding even more contaminants. The only people who think this is all ok are not residents who have to live with it.

Yes, that's a valid concern.

Look what happened in Lake Morena, when nitrate contamination left them without potable water for over 3 yeras; they had to truck in bottled water for drinking and cooking.