COLUMBIA — Despite contention among neighbors to the property, H.T. May and Son Funeral Home will open its fifth branch in Columbia this April, pending approval by the Missouri State Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers.
The funeral home, which its owners say is the only black-owned funeral home between St. Louis and Kansas City, bought the property at 2207 Holly Ave. from the Hinkson Creek Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses. To operate the business on the property, owner Thomas May needed to change the land's zoning from residential to commercial.
The Columbia City Council unanimously approved the zoning change at its Monday meeting, with Second Ward Councilman Chris Janku citing it was a "win-win situation" for the neighbors of the property — his constituents — as well as the funeral home.
But some residents did not agree.
John Fagot, who arrived to the meeting too late to speak on the record in opposition to the rezoning, said he felt the council was opening up Pandora's box.
"Once it's zoned commercial, anything can go in there," Fagot said.
The council tried to reassure disgruntled residents that the zoning change was only for a single-use commercial property, which means if the property was later sold, it would require another zoning change to become anything other than a funeral home.
Neighbor John Payne, who was the only person to speak against the change at the hearing, said "spot rezoning" was a sensitive subject for him and he felt that it would be easier for a different business to get the necessary zoning change in the future, if the property rezoning was approved Monday.
"It could be a massage parlor or an X-rated book store later. Who knows how it could end up," Payne said. He added that he had already lost a renter because they didn't want to live next to a funeral home.
Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe also asked owner Thomas May if he would be willing to change zoning to office property or residential should the city's ordinance later allow funeral homes to operate in such zones.
"Does that make you feel more comfortable?" Hoppe asked Payne.
Payne replied: "No. I think that's wrong. You're elected by your constituents to make a decision tonight based on what's on the record tonight, not based on things that might change down the road."
May said he would be willing to change zones later, as long as it didn't affect his business.
The council asked the same of a church-turned-funeral home on East Texas and North Garth avenues in September, and the possibility of allowing mortuaries to operate in either planned office or residential zoning will be discussed by the Planing and Zoning Commission this week.
This funeral home is needed for the black community, said Mary Ratliff, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's local branch.
Lorenzo Lawson, senior pastor for Chosen Generation Ministries, said his congregation uses H.T. May and Son Funeral Home frequently but driving grieving families to Boonville can be "burdensome."
"Since our only African-American funeral home has been shut down temporarily — or maybe permanently — this funeral home has been a blessing," Lawson said, referencing the closure of the Warren Funeral Home in July 2008.
May said he is looking forward to becoming a permanent force in Columbia.