COLMA, Calif. — Forty-five years ago, Don and Sophie Mason thought they were making a smart move by buying a house next door to a cemetery.
The Winston Manor tract where they settled is just inside South San Francisco's border with Colma, a small town best known as the resting place for more than a million people and pets.
Just beyond the Masons' backyard fence, which marks the dividing line between the two towns, about 350,000 people are buried in the tree-shaded, manicured grounds of Cypress Lawn Memorial Park.
Although some might be bothered by the sight, the Masons say they find their view of stone crosses and carved monuments a peaceful haven from the suburban nightmares of noisy neighbors and unsightly sprawl.
"I don't care if they bring those headstones right up to our fence," said Don Mason, gazing beyond his backyard. "They don't bother me. They're the best neighbors in the world."
But that peacefulness, the Masons and their neighbors fear, is about to come to an end.
To their horror, the Colma City Council has approved the construction of a high-volume, low-cost crematory just across the street from the tract of 300-plus homes. Colma has four other crematories, but each is tucked discreetly away in the broad expanses of cemeteries. None is close to houses.
This new crematory will front the east side of busy El Camino Real, a main artery that runs through South San Francisco into Colma. Winston Manor and the cemetery are on the west side of the street.
The council's OK has caused an uproar in Winston Manor and added fuel to a recall effort against City Council members by Colma residents who say the officials are tarnishing their town's image as a dignified final resting place by opening it up to too much commercial development.
Ray Byrne, the owner of AAA Cremation Services, says he plans to build two double-burning ovens in a combination crematory-funeral parlor on a one-acre site he purchased in a foreclosure sale. He says he expects to cremate about 50 bodies a month.
Although the residents point out that some homes will be as close as 200 feet, Byrne doesn't understand the outcry. Colma, after all, is a cemetery town. Its 1,100 residents are far outnumbered by the hundreds of thousands buried in the town's 15 cemeteries.
"It is one of the few places where you can get zoned for this sort of thing," Byrne said.
AAA will fill a need, he said, because it caters to low-income families who cannot afford high-cost burials and cremations. Byrne has contracts with several Bay Area counties to dispose of the bodies of indigents and frequently works with nonprofit organizations on low-cost cremations.
But others see the decision to allow the crematory as an ominous sign of how things are changing in Colma. The town is bitterly divided between those who say the sole purpose should be to protect and preserve the cemeteries and those who want to encourage other businesses.
"I am so amazed at what is going on in town these days. It's driving me crazy," said Phillip C' de Baca, owner of Pet's Rest Cemetery and an organizer of a drive to recall four of Colma's five City Council members.
Officially, the recall effort was launched when the council voted, 4 to 1, to retire longtime City Manager Frances Liston. De Baca says the decision to locate the crematory so close to a housing tract is just one of many poor choices the council has made in recent years.
"If the cemeteries weren't here, these council people would make Colma just apartments and pavement," De Baca said with disgust. "So we're gonna dump 'em."
The outcry has exasperated some members of the besieged council, who insist that the protests are an overreaction.
"Look, we're not putting a big barbecue pit in the middle of a parking lot," said City Councilman Dennis Fisicaro, one of those targeted for recall. "This thing will be state of the art."
Whatever underlies the council's decision, the people of Winston Manor will have none of it.
Nearly all of the more than 300 families who live in the tract signed a petition in protest. Dozens turned out for angry public hearings before the Colma City Council.
The residents appealed to their own city, South San Francisco, for help and gained its backing in an effort to persuade Colma officials to reconsider.
Together, the residents and South San Francisco officials won a temporary stay of the project by discovering young hawks nesting in eucalyptus trees that would be felled to make room for the crematory. Colma council members voted to delay construction until the fledgling hawks leave the nest in July. Byrne says he expects to start building in August.
Opposition to his project, he said, comes from a combination of "ignorance" and "misinformation." He said he has been forced to plaster the property with Keep Off! and No Trespassing! signs because vandals keep pulling up surveying stakes and stealing equipment.