HARWICH — Only a small white gazebo stands among a smattering of tiny pink and blue flags marking survey and water lines on a flat, cleared 2¼-acre lot on Queen Anne Road.
Soon the roads and paths will be laid and the landscaping will follow for what is just the second pet cemetery on Cape, and the only municipal one.
Two years ago, Harwich town meeting approved the transfer of the land to the cemetery commission to build the cemetery. That proposal won an innovation award this year from the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
If two-thirds of Harwich voters at the May 7 town meeting, and a majority of voters at the May 15 town election, approve it, a 1,500-square-foot crematory and cemetery office will also be constructed at an estimated cost of around $578,000. The cemetery commission estimates it will need nearly $92,000 for the cremation equipment, tools and training for up to three people.
The facility and cemetery are located where the residential portion of Queen Anne Road turns to industrial facilities. While some town residents had expressed concern about the odor, Cemetery Administrator Robbin Kelley told selectmen at their April 9 meeting that the crematory uses a secondary combustion unit to burn off gases in the emissions. A device also monitors the exhaust to insure that only a very light gray smoke is emitted, Kelley said. The operation is also subject to state Department of Environmental Production emission standards.
In today’s age, pets are more a part of the family; people now consider them their children, Kelley told selectmen. The crematory and cemetery were part of a plan to “honor our pets with dignity and respect, and bring comfort to their family.”
Kelley cited studies and media reports showing that pets had become integral members of the family unit, with animal-friendly hotels, spas and daycare facilities, customized pet foods, even pet psychologists. Money spent on pets exceeded $69 billion in 2017, Kelley told the board, up from $53 billion in 2012, according to the American Pet Products Association.
Some of that cash flow would help subsidize a crematory that would compete with one in Plymouth and a large one in Middleboro. At $125 on average per cremation, the Harwich crematory could start turning a profit within four years with a 20-year payback period on borrowing, according to Kelley and Harwich Finance Director Carol Coppola.
That calculation assumes seven cremations a week, 364 per year, increasing each year to 533 by 2024, and steady price growth to $141.
“This is a very conservative number,” said Town Administrator Christopher Clark.
But Harwich taxpayer Richard Gundersen disagreed, feeling the estimates were too optimistic.
“I’m very much against this project,” Gundersen said. “The town shouldn’t be using taxpayer money to build and operate a business that competes with private enterprise.”
He questioned the relevance of national figures and whether there were more pets in town. He also wondered whether veterinarians, who may already have contracts or relationships with other crematories, would send their clients' pets to the Harwich facility.
“What if you do only 200 (versus the 364 assumed annual cremations)?” Gundersen asked.
That time to reach profitability could stretch out from four to 10 years, he estimated.
“There is no public safety, environmental, educational significance or economic development justification to approve this request,” he said.
— Follow Doug Fraser on Twitter:@dougfrasercct.