When he approached Lake Elmo city officials about building a cemetery in 2014, Lee Rossow couldn't foresee approval taking longer than six months. He's worked construction since his teens and has developed projects in Maplewood and Little Canada.
Nearly four years of City Council meetings, court appearances and appeals later, Rossow is still waiting for city approval of the cemetery he wants to build in rural Lake Elmo. But now a decision appears closer than ever, after a court ruling ordering the City Council to grant permission for his proposal by April 17.
"That should be the end of the line in making that 10-acre parcel a cemetery," Rossow said.
Rossow has been fighting to build Halcyon Cemetery at Lake Elmo Avenue (County Road 17) and 50th Street since November 2014, when he sent a sketch to the city's Planning Commission. A year later the City Council turned him down, despite the commission's recommendation.
Rossow sued, resulting in a ruling against the city last November by the state Court of Appeals that called the City Council's actions "unreasonable." After the state Supreme Court declined to review the case in February, the district court gave the City Council 30 days to reverse its decision.
The property for the proposed cemetery belonged to Rossow's parents, who built their house there in 1985. Rossow came up with the idea of turning it into a cemetery after his father died in a 2008 tractor accident, he said. Rossow said he got more serious about it after his wife, Geni, died of cancer in 2014; she and his parents would be the first to be buried there.
Rossow said his cemetery would be nondenominational with "high-end" and "modern" offerings. The house on the property where his parents lived would be used by the cemetery caretaker.
"The trend nowadays is to have it done in one motion," Rossow said. "To do all of this grieving and celebrating in one stroke. And that's the design of the cemetery we're working on."
When the Planning Commission first received Rossow's sketch in 2014, commissioners seemed unfamiliar with the standards for cemeteries contained in the zoning code. According to the code, which was amended in 2013, cemeteries are permitted on rural residential properties like Rossow's as long as they have no tall structures or crematoriums. City Planner Nick Johnson referred to the code at the meeting as an "open canvas" without "specific development standards."
The Planning Commission voted to recommend approval of the cemetery, despite some private misgivings.
"I would've voted against this if I thought I had a basis to do so," Commissioner Dean Dodson told the City Council in 2015. "However, this appeared to me as something that slipped through the cracks, as far as an ordinance goes."
In retrospect, Dodson said the Planning Commission could have pushed back more or offered additional suggestions. But in subsequent meetings, he said, it became clear that there was nothing in the zoning code that the commission could legally use to block the building of a cemetery.
At council meetings in 2015, concerned neighbors talked about the commercial aspects they saw in Rossow's proposal, and his plans for a parking lot and gathering space for families. They asked who would pay for and maintain the cemetery after Rossow goes.
At a public hearing in October 2015, Yvette Oldendorf said cemeteries are too permanent for a quick decision. "Not many of the other decisions you make about zoning, or about subdivisions, or about our roads ... ha[ve] the same implications," she said.
Rossow was philosophical about the long delay. "I'm not angry, I'm not mad," he said, referring to the years he's spent seeking approval for the cemetery. "I just want to get started."
Emily Allen is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.