National Cemetery Development
One of the goals of the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) is to provide eligible Veterans with reasonable access to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) burial options. More than 80 percent of those interred in national cemeteries lived within 75 miles of the cemetery at the time of death. To NCA, reasonable access to burial benefits means that a first interment option, for casketed or cremated remains in a national or state Veterans cemetery, is available within 75 miles of the Veteran's home.
To meet the burial needs of Veterans, NCA builds new national cemeteries in areas where large Veteran populations do not have reasonable access to burial options. NCA has opened ten new national cemeteries since 2015. Barring significant construction delays, three new national cemeteries (located in Elko, NV; Cedar City, UT; and Queens, NY) are scheduled to open in 2023.
NCA also seeks to increase the long-term burial capacity of current national cemeteries by acquiring adjacent land, building columbaria where feasible and using innovative designs that maximize the burial space available. NCA also manages the Veterans Cemetery Grants Program which encourages states, U.S. territories and tribal governments to build state Veterans cemeteries in areas unserved by a national cemetery. VA has helped establish 121 state, territory and tribal Veterans cemeteries through its grants program since 1980.
In addition, the Department of the Army transferred eleven cemeteries to NCA in 2019 and 2020. Though most of these cemeteries are no longer open to first interments, they did provide a small boost to accessibility for Veterans in some areas. The percentage of Veterans with reasonable access to burial benefits at a national or state Veterans cemetery increased from 65 percent in 1995 to approximately 94 percent by the end of 2022.
Process to Build a New National Cemetery
NCA follows a six-step process to build a new national cemetery: site selection; environmental assessment; land acquisition; master planning and design development; construction documents preparation; and construction award and completion.
Step 1: Site Selection
NCA identifies a geographic area with a large Veteran population that is unserved by a national or state Veterans cemetery. NCA canvases the local area for sites of the size needed to meet demographic forecasts. These sites are evaluated for their suitability for cemetery development and the top two to five sites advance to the next step in the process.
Step 2: Environmental Assessment
To comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the top sites are assessed to determine the impact of cemetery development and operations on the environment. An Environmental Assessment document is prepared, identifying the VA preferred site. The site's assessment must result in a "Finding of No Significant Impact" (FONSI) in order to be considered for acquisition.
If the NEPA evaluation results in a FONSI, then NCA makes the results available to the general public for a 30-day comment period. After the comment period, NCA makes a final recommendation to the Under Secretary of Memorial Affairs, who decides whether to purchase the property.
Step 3: Land Acquisition
In some instances, land is donated to VA. Federal and state lands have also been transferred to VA at no cost to establish some national cemeteries. Otherwise, land is purchased at the fair market value established by a real property appraisal. The Office of General Counsel, under a delegation from the Department of Justice, reviews all documents to ensure that the contract and title meet all the requirements for a legal transfer of ownership.
Step 4: Master Planning and Design Development
The VA uses Architect and Engineering (A/E) firms for master planning and design. It uses a general contractor for construction once it has acquired title to land. A master plan for developing all phases of the cemetery on the entire site is prepared, followed by more detailed design development for the first phase of construction.
The first phase usually includes the first active burial section and the requisite infrastructure to operate the cemetery. Subsequent phases generally include new burial sections and associated infrastructure in the new section. Typically, each phase of construction is designed to provide sufficient burial space to last 10 years.
Step 5: Construction Document Preparation
Under a second negotiated contract, the A/E prepares plans and specifications that detail all aspects of phase one construction: active burial sections, administrative buildings, maintenance buildings, public information center, committal shelters, roads and other infrastructure. These documents provide the basis for contractor bids.
Step 6: Construction Award and Completion
Finally, NCA solicits bids and awards a contract for construction of the new cemetery. The bid and award process takes about four months; actual construction of phase one takes about 24 months. Funds approved by Congress must be available in order to complete the various steps.
Land purchases and construction require multiple appropriations, over several years of budgets, to complete each phase. Site selection, NEPA compliance, master planning, design and phase one construction usually require more than five years to complete.