By Adrian Reid

A proposal for a 150-hectare cemetery in Campbelltown took Varroville House residents Jacqui Kirkby and Peter Gibbs by surprise when they heard about it in 2013. If the proposal went ahead they were going to be living in the middle of the cemetery.  

Three years later, in a hearing in front of the NSW Joint Regional Planning Panel (JRRP) for Sydney East on August 25, they are still fighting the proposal.

Site of proposed cemetery, Varroville House in background

Site of proposed cemetery, Varroville House in background

In her submission to the JRRP hearing, Ms Kirkby called the proposal “state-sanctioned theft”, saying that the development would give them a “360-degree view” of a graveyard and make their historic home unsellable.

The Carmelite nuns and friars, who live near the proposed site of the cemetery on St Andrews Rd, Varroville, also oppose the cemetery.

Father Gregory Burke say that they had received no offer of compensation even though “the peace and serenity of the area provides our livelihood”.

Behind the proposed cemetery is the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (CMCT) which says that that Western Sydney will run out of burial sites by 2042.

However, Rob Matta, Family Services Manager for the nearby Forest Lawn Memorial Park cemetery in Leppington says they have enough burial space for the next 70 years, “unless we have a major holocaust”.

Research by McCrindle Research in 2014 for the Australian Funeral Directors Association shows an increasing demand for cremations instead of burials, largely due to cost.  According to their survey of Australians aged 50+ only 20 per cent would prefer a burial.

Another report by business intelligence company IBISWorld predicts that, despite higher numbers of aged Australians, the increased number of cremations will “limit industry growth”.

The hearing was another step in a process that started in 2013 when the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust announced a plan to build a cemetery in Varroville, on part of Campbelltown’s Scenic Hills. The development would provide 136, 000 graves in five stages, with the final stage complete “post 2099”.

According to its 2015 financial report, the CMCT planned a forty-million-dollar investment in the cemetery over the next three years.

Plans include a chapel, condolence rooms, a sculpture park, marsh and ponds, and an area for “passive recreation” such as picnics. According to architect Florence Jaquet, graves will be marked with “plaques flush with the grass”, but monuments up to 1.5 metres in height will also be allowed. 

Mr Anoulack Chanthivong speaking at the JRRP Varroville cemetery hearing

Mr Anoulack Chanthivong speaking at the JRRP Varroville cemetery hearing

The August hearing was to decide on rezoning the site of the proposed cemetery. Currently the site has E3 Environmental Management status that prohibits business operations such as cemeteries.

The Campbelltown City Council was opposed to such a change and Councillor George Brticevic described the motion as a “spot rezoning”.

Councillor Meg Oates said that smog and smoke comes down through the valley from the Scenic Hills. With a crematorium, she said residents will be inhaling human remains.

At the hearing Leo McLeay, Chair of CMCT, denied plans to construct a crematorium at the proposed site. However, the Scenic Hills Association website links to a list of business names that the CMCT has registered under its ABN, many of which include the word “crematorium”.

Mr Anoulack Chanthivong, Macquarie Fields state Labour MP, said that the timing of the hearing was unfair as the Campbelltown Council was in “caretaker mode” prior to local elections on September 10.

The Scenic Hills Association in a statement on its website, said that the NSW government allowed the CMCT to buy the site before the cemetery had been approved. Discovery of the sale was made in February, well before approval to pass to a hearing was given in June.

Jacqui Kirkby also told the JRRP panel that she had obtained a planning document prepared by Urbis for the CMCT under the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 (GIPAA). According to Ms Kirkby, the document is an assessment of potential cemetery sites in Western Sydney. It was prepared in August 2014 after the Scenic Hills cemetery was first proposed. Thirty-one sites for a cemetery were considered in the document, five of which rated highly. The Scenic Hills site was not among these.

Update: In an announcement made on Sep 12, the JRRP panel approved the rezoning of the site of the proposed cemetery. The announcement was made after a two-week delay, on the Monday following the Campbelltown Council election.