“I miss him a lot,” Shawn Ryan said as he gestured toward his beloved dog Scooby’s grave, which was decorated in red flowers and a miniature flag. Since the death of his red nose American Staffordshire Terrier five years ago, Ryan has regularly visited his pet’s resting place at the Seattle Pet Cemetery by West Coast Pet Memorial.
“He made Lassie and Rin Tin Tin look silly,” Ryan said during a recent visit. “I showed him the world and taught him all kinds of stuff.” The two were inseparable.
But Ryan’s visits to the gravesite haven’t been the same recently. Last summer, the Federal Way resident was surprised to find a concrete base on a corner of the grassy cemetery. The base would go on to hold a 100-foot AT&T cellphone tower, which has since drawn the ire of nearby residents, patrons, politicians and state agencies who say the cell tower shouldn’t be allowed — because the pet cemetery has human remains, too.
Located at 23646 Military Road S. in Kent, the burial ground formerly known as Pet Haven Cemetery has served as a final resting place for over 1,000 animals for more than 70 years. The oldest pet cemetery in the state, it’s also home to over 20 cremated remains of humans who chose to be buried with their pets, although the state’s Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation is uncertain of the exact number of people buried there.
Several patrons have also purchased plots with the intention of being buried alongside their pets in the future, including Barbara Dulaney, who purchased three plots in 2014 with the plan of being buried with her 17 pets. One mottled red headstone at the cemetery noted Roger Agan’s death in 1997, along with the name of his still-living wife, Darlene, who will be buried there in the future, and a list of their buried pets.
Patrons and nearby residents believe the site should be considered a cemetery with human remains, which they say puts the cell tower in violation of state law prohibiting the use of a cemetery for non-cemetery purposes. However, the state Department of Licensing, which licenses cemeteries, does not consider the site a human cemetery and has no jurisdiction over the pet burial ground, department spokesperson Rob Wieman said.
“The placement of cremated remains on private property does not, by itself, create a cemetery,” Dave Ittner, of the state’s Department of Licensing and Funeral and Cemetery Board, wrote in the case review.
The cell tower’s opponents also argue the construction permit issued July 9, 2020, was unlawfully obtained since it didn’t disclose the human remains. King County maintains it was unaware of the human remains until after the permit was issued, and that there’s no going back now.
Despite setbacks, the group of residents and cemetery patrons have remained undeterred as they’ve continued fighting the cell tower’s placement through a patchwork of local and federal laws and agencies. On July 1, pet cemetery patron Julie Seitz received a $6,800 award from the county’s cultural funding agency 4Culture to nominate the site for historic status.
The group hopes that historic status will protect the burial area moving forward and the parties that erected the cellphone tower will choose to move it outside the cemetery.
“It has been built in bad faith,” Seitz said. “It’s a desecration of our burial ground.”
A former private investigator, Seitz has been the de facto leader of the cell tower opposition effort. She learned about the cellphone tower last September when she was visiting the memorial chimes she services by untangling their strings every Sunday for her two deceased dogs, Lovey and Kuma, who were cremated at the establishment.
She obtained letters from the King County Department of Natural Resources & Parks Historic Preservation Program that determined the site eligible for local historic landmark preservation, along with the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation that said it was eligible as a state and possibly national historic landmark.
Local politicians and departments have joined the opposition efforts: Staff from the state’s archaeology and historic preservation department sent letters to both the County and the Federal Communications Commission, arguing that state and federal environmental reviews did not disclose human remains or the historic and cultural significance of the pet cemetery. However, the FCC, which licensed the antenna, determined the cemetery doesn’t meet the specific criteria required to enter the National Register of Historic Places.
Last December, 103 local residents signed a paper petition requesting that the tower construction stop. They urged King County as the permit provider, permit applicant Crown Castle, AT&T, property landowners Julie and Steve Morris, and the cemetery business owner Gateway Services Inc. to work together to revoke the permit and relocate the cellphone tower.
Local residents also say they’re concerned about health risks from the tower’s 5G technology.
The group Physicians for Safe Technology argue that the closer a person lives to towers, the higher the rate of physical symptoms such as headaches, insomnia, fatigue and nausea. Meanwhile, organizations like the World Health Organization say there are no known negative health effects linked to wireless technologies, and that the higher-frequency waves used in 5G are less able to penetrate the body than lower-frequency waves — and therefore may be less likely to have potential health impacts.
Still, neighborhood residents like Phylliss Lundquist aren’t convinced.
“We don’t want to be your guinea pigs,” Lundquist said, who has lived behind the cemetery for 14 years. “If 20 years from now there’s a problem, we don’t want to find out later.”
A done deal?
Seitz and other patrons informed King County of the human remains on the site after the permit was issued, said Jim Chan, King County Department of Local Services’ Permitting Division director. By then it was too late, and the county would not revoke the permit. The property owner and business operator have not confirmed the presence of human remains, he added, so the site still isn’t considered a human cemetery in King County’s records.
In future developments, Chan said, the permitting division will take the possibility of human remains on the site into consideration to ensure that proper protocol is followed.
“We can’t just have someone that’s not involved say, ‘There’s something there and you need to protect it and do all these things,’ and they’re not the property owner or the business owner,” Chan said.
As it stands within King County’s permitting division, “there’s no process that would reverse that approval,” Chan said. He is unaware of any other cell towers within cemeteries in the county.
Gateway Services Inc., a “pet aftercare” services company based in Ontario, Canada, became aware of the property owners’ plan to erect a cell tower when they began leasing the pet cemetery site in 2017. “As happens when anyone leases a portion of a larger piece of land, the tenant has no control over what the landlord does with the rest of the land owned by the landlord and that is the case here,” said the company’s chief operating officer, Kelly Clinton.
“We, of course, had no knowledge that there was any suggestion of human remains on the site as we were leasing the property to maintain the pet cemetery,” Clinton added.
The owners of the property — Julie and Steve Morris of J.K. Morris LLC, who purchased the property in 2012 for $40,000 according to county records — did not respond to requests for comment.
Houston-based telecommunications infrastructure company Crown Castle worked with AT&T to erect the cellphone tower. The company followed King County’s permitting and environmental regulations before erecting the tower, said Crown Castle’s vice president of real estate, Jonathan Arrowood.
“In deference to the surroundings, the tower is located outside of the burial area and the tower’s location does not disturb any of the grave sites in the cemetery,” he said in an emailed statement. “We remain committed to building carefully and respectfully, and to maintaining the tower site in the same manner.”
Seitz plans to use the recent grant from 4Culture to nominate the site as a historic King County landmark, which she hopes will protect it from future development. The tower opponents also set up a GoFundMe to cover historic preservation and legal costs, which raised over $2,000 of the $10,000 goal by Wednesday afternoon.
Local and state politicians also have taken an interest in the issue. State Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, believes that the controversy calls for increased clarity around cemetery state laws. Orwall plans to meet with several state offices including the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation and the Department of Licensing to discuss possible legislation.
Along with implementing a better system for collecting data on the location of human remains, Orwall wants the state to consider strengthening current law so family members are notified whenever changes are made to a cemetery, or if remains will need to be relocated.
In Seitz’s eyes, the mission is simple: “This is a cemetery,” she said. “We were promised peace and rest and that our loved ones would be here in perpetuity undisturbed.”