Generations have poured their lives into building Queen Creek. But, because the community hasn't had a cemetery, they've had to go to Mesa or Chandler once they passed away.
Former Mayor Mark Schnepf is working to fix that. Plans to turn the northwest corner of his family's farm into the area's first cemetery are under review by Maricopa County. If everything goes according to schedule, he'll be able to start selling plots by mid to late summer.
"This land means so much to me and to my family. We have invested so many generations of our lives into this farm," Schnepf said. "We've been part of the Queen Creek history for four generations. The idea of being able to stay in the community, have my remains stay in the community once I've passed on ... it has a deep meaning."
San Tan Memorial Gardens will serve Queen Creek and surrounding communities. It will initially cover 15 acres, but will eventually become a 40-acre cemetery with a mausoleum, chapel and community room on the site.
Schnepf expects the cemetery to serve Queen Creek's needs for the next 50 years.
He has been getting ready to submit his plans to the county for more than a year, but discussions about a town cemetery were around for much longer.
"My father wanted to build a cemetery on the farm in the 1970s, primarily because the community didn't have one," Schnepf said. "Really, a cemetery is an institution in any community."
The idea of a municipal cemetery as a important amenity came up in Town Council discussions in the 1990s and the early 2000s, Schnepf said.
But no one submitted plans to build one.
"That pioneer generation that was passing away had to be buried in other communities as they passed away," Schnepf said. "Cemeteries are not quick profit centers. There are not a lot of people who are willing to invest the time and money and wait it out, because sometimes it takes decades to become profitable."
Tom Murch, a former councilman who remembers some of those early conversations, said he was supportive of Schnepf's plan.
"There were a lot of people that were born in this area, especially the older farmers. I think they would like to be left here in the area where they grew up and did the farming," Murch said. "I think we owe it to the pioneers to do something like this."
The land meant for the cemetery, 15 acres at the southeast corner of Cloud and Signal Butte roads, is currently a hay field that is occasionally used for overflow event parking.
In addition to serving a community need, the cemetery will also serve as a buffer for events between the farm's events and Schnepf's neighbors to the west, Schnepf said.
There are already mature trees on the western edge of what will be the cemetery land. Schnepf plans to plant additional trees along the other sides of the cemetery.
No neighbors came to a neighborhood meeting Schnepf had for the project in November, and he hasn't received any positive or negative feedback on it, lately. However, one neighbor did ask the cemetery be moved next door to him a while back, Schnepf said.
"It's a very quiet use and a beautiful landscape use," Schnepf said. "It's really a good land use to be next to. It's open space. It's green. It's quiet. It's an ideal neighbor."