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Draper Journal

City purchases property from school district for potential cemetery

Apr 08, 2024 02:05PM ● By Mimi Darley Dutton

Draper City signed a real estate purchase agreement with Canyons School District (CSD) for approximately 10 acres located at 12695 S. 1700 East. CSD no longer needs the property for a school in that area. Draper City hopes to create a new cemetery on five of the acres and sell the other five to recoup their investment. In an agreement designed to benefit both parties, the city will split the profits with CSD for any of the land the city resells. (Mimi Darley Dutton/City Journals)

Draper City has been trying to find a site for a second cemetery for nearly a decade. It’s been a recurring topic at city council meetings. All of the plots at the historic Fort Street cemetery have been sold, though it has yet to reach capacity for people buried there. 

“The need for more land for a cemetery is something we’ve heard for years. Draper residents love Draper as a place to grow up, to raise our families, and as an eternal resting place. I think that’s a beautiful thing we need to honor,” Draper City Councilmember Tasha Lowery said. 

Soaring land prices have made finding a second cemetery site within the city difficult, particularly knowing that cemeteries are a break-even business at best. “A cemetery is just one more piece of the puzzle in terms of meeting all constituents’ needs,” Lowery said. Other residents prioritize open space, parks, community gatherings and recreational programs. 

Enter the Canyons School District (CSD) into the equation. They’ve owned approximately 10 acres at 12695 S. 1700 East since 2009. “That property was acquired by the Jordan School District in the 1990s as a potential elementary school site and CSD inherited it in 2009 when the District split. It’s not optimally located for us. Most development (where younger families live) is further west. We remain committed to building an elementary to serve the Draper community, but it’s a matter of timing and location. We want it to be conveniently located for families,” said CSD spokesperson Kirsten Stewart.  

The District reached out to Draper City first under a state law that says cities get first right of refusal to purchase surplus land from school districts for community purposes, and also because the city had expressed interest. “They approached us that they wanted to sell it, so that’s what started the process,” Mayor Troy Walker said. 

The purchase price for the 10.87 acres is $5.6 million. According to City Manager David Dobbins, $2 million had previously been set aside by the city for a new cemetery, so the remaining $3.6 million is being borrowed from the General Fund, the Capital Improvement Fund and the Fund Balance. “The intent is we’d buy the roughly 10 acres, sell half of it for single family home developments, and the city would pursue the option of putting a cemetery on the other five acres,” Dobbins said. 

Knowing that a portion of it could be developed after being resold, and even before they entered into a real estate contract with CSD, the council took action to rezone the land from agriculture to 20,000-square-foot lots. “Every house around it is a half-acre or bigger. The council thinks that fits there the best and I agree with them. Whoever purchases it will have to commit to half acres,” Walker said. According to the mayor, no decisions have been made as to which portion of the 10 acres might be set aside for a cemetery and which portion will be sold for development.

Lowery worked on the terms of the sale with the school district. She said strong relationships have been built between the two entities over the years. The parties agreed that Draper City will split the profits with CSD for any parts of the property that the city resells. “Both entities are 100% invested in serving the public. Profit sharing helps us both to attain our goal: serving our communities,” Lowery said.

Still, the future of the city’s soon to be acquired property isn’t set in stone. The problem remains that cemeteries are more of a subsidized civic service than they are a moneymaker or even a break-even business model. “I don’t know that you can find a municipal cemetery in the country that makes money,” Walker said. According to the mayor, the city’s historic cemetery on Fort Street was a gift from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the city long ago. That means that Draper City is responsible for digging the graves and providing water and maintenance. The city also handles the sale of plots. “There’s a waiting list. We don’t up the price, we sell them for whatever that plot’s first purchase price was. We’re not making money on it,” Walker said. 

Walker warns that if the newly purchased land does become the city’s second cemetery, that won’t happen quickly. There’s also the possibility of it being contracted out or sold to a private cemetery operator. “The reality is, we really can’t afford this cemetery. If we sell half of it and hopefully recoup the other half’s value…we’re going to have to pay off the land before we start burying people. We have no money in our budget to create and operate a new cemetery. I don’t know when we’ll be in the financial situation to start…we have a lot of other bills to pay,” Walker said.

The mayor’s grandmother is buried at the Fort Street cemetery and he appreciates the ability to visit her there. “I recognize the need, it’s an integral part of the culture, but I’m not 100% sure it’s a business we should be in. We need to pay for police, fire, all the stuff the living want,” Walker said. 

The transaction closing date between the city and the school district is scheduled for April 30.

“The council’s view was this is really nice property and it only comes around once. We’d like to do a cemetery, it’s what the public wants. But there are a whole lot of details that have to be worked out,” Walker said. “If the cemetery doesn’t pencil out, I don’t think the city council is going to get hurt on the land if they have to sell it.” λ