APPLETON — Faced with rising maintenance costs and exploring ambitious expansion plans, Appleton’s Select Board Jan. 10 appointed a committee to study its cemeteries’ past, present and future.

“This group is faced with some deep diving into the past in the name of making the future more sustainable and also lessening the tax burden of some immediate heavy lifting of funding needed expenses in Pine Grove (cemetery),” Select Board Chair Lorie Costigan said in written comments about the new Appleton Cemetery Advisory Committee.

 

Select board member Scott Esancy’s cemetery knowledge will help committee’s work. Photo by Jack M. Foley

Five people, including two select board members, were appointed unanimously at the board’s Jan. 10 meeting. They are board members Scott Esancy and Marci Blakely and Robert Bocko, Karen Reed and Marlene Libby.

The committee was slated to be sworn in at the select board’s Jan. 17 meeting.

Costigan said the group combines for “a rich diversity of skillsets and a unique ability to contribute.” Bocko is a lawyer and chair of the town budget committee. Reed works in the financial and insurance world and Libby has spent a career in municipal government, according to Costigan.

 

Select board member Marci Blakely joins newly created Cemetery Advisory Committee. Photo by Jack M. Foley

In addition, Esancy has been the town’s liaison with a Maine firm, Walsh Engineering, tapped by the board to present a proposal on expansion at Pine Grove Cemetery. It could include a columbarium for the storage of funerary ashes — the county’s first — and an ash scatter garden.

Committee member-designee Libby sees giving the cemeteries’ dead and diseased trees the attention they require and creating a cemetery database as important needs to be addressed, she said. Her hope is for the committee “to work together to bring the cemetery needs/issues forward in the best interest of the town, families of the deceased and townspeople,” she told the Camden Herald.

Pine Grove is one of nine Appleton cemeteries and the only one still open to burials. Two are private. Most used to be under the management of a cemetery association, but management was not long ago transferred to the town.

Improvements at Pine Grove have been discussed seriously since at least last fall. A town committee last year recommended those upgrades to be funded from Appleton’s approximately $145,000 share of federal, COVID-19-related American Rescue Plan Act money — along with new dry hydrants, water filtering and a fireproof storage area for records. Costigan and Esancy were on that now disbanded ARPA committee. The town is actively exploring or engaged in all those projects. The ARPA funds will be built into the proposed budget for next year, according to Costigan.

 

Select board chair Lorie Costigan studies Pine Grove map with engineer William Walsh in Oct. 2022.

The new cemetery committee has its work cut out for it as it has been charged by the select board with reviewing years’ worth of cemetery records, including revenues, expenditures and fees, and current expansion plans.

The nearly 200-year-old graveyard, off Sennebec Road, was wracked recently by a ferocious windstorm that toppled four huge pine trees. Their falling trunks and limbs damaged many tombstones. The bill for cleanup, repairs and felling other, diseased trees is expected to exceed $30,000. It is the second such devastating storm in recent years.

“Faced with a relatively immediate large expense of cutting all dangerous pines ($30K), the primary task is to research the historical deposits for plots and perpetual care — including the transfer from a private memorial association to the town — and determine the Town’s ability to use funds, not simply interest, for care,” Costigan explained.

She called that part of the committee’s charge “the highest priority,” and said that “ideally” its work will be completed prior to completion of the 2023-24 budget and the next town meeting warrant “so the board can determine if taxes need to be appropriated for cemetery needs.”

Those needs include an annual mowing bill of $16,000. Interest on banked perpetual care and other fees do not even pay the mowing bill, Costigan said.

In short, the committee will be looking at ways of “funding expansion of burial and cremation areas and investing funds in ways that will yield better returns so the cemeteries can become more self-sufficient,” Costigan said.

Among specifics of the committee’s work are exploring historic perpetual care and plot deposits and intent for use; comparing Appleton’s plot and perpetual care fees with those of other towns; and the costs and funding mechanisms involved in a Pine Grove expansion that would include a cremation ash storage facility, commonly called a columbarium, and scatter garden.

 

A section of Pine Grove Cemetery was closed off recently after a fierce windstorm toppled trees and damaged grave stones.

In recent months, questions have also arisen about how much space remains at Pine Grove for new burials. When the ARPA committee recommended those funds be used in part for expansion to allow funerary ash storage, it was also suggested that space at the cemetery was limited.

However, that aspect of cemetery operations is not part of the new committee’s work, Costigan said. Instead, the space issue is expected to be explored by Walsh Engineering of Westbrook. Appleton approached the firm for help with the expansion and cremation ash storage idea.

On a visit in October to Pine Grove, company principal William R. Walsh told town officials the cemetery has a lot more space than they think. That is because, he said, other cemeteries devote far less space than Appleton does to the burial of ashes.