June 19, 2024
Monte Vista Memorial Gardens is set for development in unincorporated north Livermore.

Tucked away in eastern Alameda County is a sprawling 47-acre site that will soon be transformed into the cemetery of the future, expected to serve the Tri-Valley and surrounding region for the next 200 years. It would be the first new cemetery in Alameda County in three decades.

“Not many people get a chance to do this from scratch,” said Andy Martinez, the cemetery and funeral home consultant for Monte Vista Memorial Gardens, which is set for development in unincorporated north Livermore. “And (it’s) a very pivotal moment with all the changing trends.”

Alameda County supervisors approved a conditional use permit for the cemetery and funeral home project, which has been in the planning stages for almost 10 years. It is being developed by Monte Vista Memorial Investment Group.

After it acquires licenses and building permits, Martinez said the cemetery could begin accommodating interments, or burials, in the first quarter of next year.

Many of the cemeteries in Alameda County were developed in the 19th century. Most recently, the Five Pillars Farm Cemetery, which provides services for Muslim burials in Livermore, was founded in 1996. Before that, Cedar Lawn Memorial Park in Fremont was started in 1967.

“California hasn’t had the need because it was the last frontier — the last state to be populated,” Martinez said. “So we haven’t run out of space from those initial cemeteries. But now we’re running out of space, and this is the only cemetery that will last into the 23rd century.”

The Monte Vista Memorial Gardens project site sits on a 104-acre parcel of pastoral land next to Interstate 580 between North Livermore Avenue and the North First Street exit. The cemetery will be built out in two phases and accommodate non-denominational burials in addition to a dedicated Jewish section — the Magen David Memorial Gardens.

Ron Kahn, CEO of Magen David Memorial Investment Group, said the cemetery will fill a public need for followers of Judaism in the Tri-Valley region and beyond. The developers estimate Alameda County’s Jewish population is about 40,000, with 10,000 in the Tri-Valley area.

“There really hasn’t been a good cemetery dedicated to the Jewish community in this area, ever,” Kahn said on a recent tour of the cemetery site, as the sound of traffic blew by on the interstate. “There’s a little teeny section — that’s how it’s generally been.”

In 2014, rabbis and members of the local Jewish community led a consecration ceremony on the cemetery land — an event Kahn described as a “once-in-a-lifetime deal.” The Jewish section could see approximately 460 burial plots, with more than 500 burial plots available in the non-denominational section. A defining feature of the Jewish section, Kahn said, will be large trellises covered in vegetation and designed in the shape of the Star of David.

The first phase of the cemetery — which is expected to be developed on about 6.7 acres over the next five years — would see the erection of a funeral home and crematorium in the style of a Tuscan winery, a nod to the region’s wineries and vineyards. The second, much larger phase, will be developed over the next 100 years.

Winding paths and bridges over an arroyo on the land will make way to future resting places. Kahn said the rolling hills that form a ridgeline on the property and can be viewed from the nearby highway will be protected through an easement agreement with Tri-Valley Conservancy, which is in ongoing negotiations with the developers for a deal to conserve up to 25 acres of land.

But getting to this point hasn’t been without controversy, as local open-space advocates and the city of Livermore expressed opposition to the cemetery plan.

At the Alameda County Board of Supervisors meeting on Aug. 10, an attorney for the groups Friends of Livermore and Friends of Open Space and Vineyards said the project violates Measure D, an initiative approved by county voters that regulates uses of rural land.

“While we’ve been fairly lenient about whether a cemetery fits with that, the issue of the funeral home buildings we think clearly as a commercial use that does not fit within the scope of Measure D,” attorney Susann Bradford told the board, adding that county policies restrict commercial uses that are not related to agriculture in the area covered by Measure D.

Steve Riley, Livermore’s principal planner, told the board the cemetery project would inappropriately urbanize open space situated against the city’s boundaries. He said the project would be best suited to an incorporated area of the county that has supporting services and infrastructure.

The board, in approving the project, won concessions from Kahn, who agreed to shelve an above-ground mausoleum concept for the Jewish section of the cemetery and increased the number of acres to be provided for a conservation easement on the property.

Jasmine Berrios, a funeral director and embalmer at the storied Hollywood Forever cemetery in Hollywood, said industry trends for end-of-life disposition options continue to favor cremation. She noted the Cremation Association of North America reported California in 2022 saw a cremation rate of 61% to 70% of all funeral home services.

And while new disposition options such as alkaline hydrolysis — a type of liquid cremation — are becoming available, client families have proved reluctant to change, Berrios said, adding that only one alkaline hydrolysis facility exists in the state.

Martinez, the cemetery consultant for Monte Vista Memorial Gardens, said the site will offer a range of disposition options, including natural or “green” burials that are more environmentally friendly. But he’s also looking toward the future. The site is open to the idea of terramation — or human composting — which will be allowed in the state starting in 2027.

“Things are changing, especially with AI and all the other things you could do with technology now,” he said. “Whether it’s having screens built into the walls of the chapel where you can change the aesthetic of the room … or being able to visit burial sites from remote (locations).”