Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Battle over Cemetery Memorial Park

UPDATE: Prior to the issue returning to the City Council for a vote, the Parks and Recreation Commission will be holding another discussion, this one focused on the "scaled-down" alternative(s). For the agenda and staff report for that June 17 meeting, go here and click on Agenda Item Four.

It is one of the most beautiful spots in Ventura. It has a rich history. It is much beloved. And it is the topic of emotional debate.

Cemetery Memorial Park is the site of 3,000 graves, buried in several adjacent cemeteries dating back at least to 1862. By the Thirties, the cemeteries were no long active. Neglect and vandalism prompted the Planning Commission to begin discussions for converting the cemetery into a park. That plan was ultimately adopted in the early Sixties. Remaining headstones were removed and a "parklike" setting was installed.

A movement spearheaded by Steve Schleder began five years ago to reverse that decision. He's been a persistent and passionate critic, arguing that Ventura not only dishonored those buried on the seven acre site, but violated the law. A Grand Jury investigation failed to confirm his legal arguments, but they did recommend the City do a better job of respecting the nature of the site.

In the years since, the City Council has heard from a shifting chorus of voices on what should -- or should not -- be done. At times, the passion and numbers have favored those demanding the City do more to honor the historic graves -- if not to fully restore the Cemetery, at least to put a name above each of the graves. Lately, the more numerous voices have been arguing that the City should essentially leave the site alone.

What brought the debate front and center again was a plan developed over the past two years to implement the Council's direction to do a better job of balancing the many aspects of the park -- as an historic site, as a cemetery and as a public park. Elaborate public input led to an ambitious -- and controversial -- plan. With a long-term price tag of $4 million, it made an easy target for neighbors and park users to lampoon City government for contemplating changes that no one wants at a cost that no one can afford.

The critics have a point -- up to a point. Instead of working from a realistic budget, the firm hired to assist in park planning designed a master plan that assumed that over the next two decades, private fundraising and park grant funding could pay for a park make-over. Some objected to removal of the parking lot; others to the placing of individual grave markers over all the remains; and others just griped about the whole package as an absurd waste of money in a down economy. As an alternative, staff placed before the City Council a much scaled-down version more in keeping with the original intent to address deferred maintenance and install some kind of appropriate memorial monument.

But the volunteer citizens who serve on our Parks and Recreation Commission, who held a series of meetings leading up to their approval of the plan, represent a different community perspective. They saw the plan as a visionary way of making the park truly a majestic destination that celebrated the legacy of Ventura's history, honored the departed and yet made the park a welcoming place for neighbors and visitors. They realized that it would take decades for that vision to unfold, but obviously the site has undergone a great many changes already in its 150 year history. Right now, the park is primarily used neighborhood strollers and dog owners, most of whom ignore the ban on unleashed dogs in the park. The Commission anticipated the park becoming a more unique and appealing setting to understand and appreciate our city's unique history and beauty.

After hearing from public speakers, the City Council ran out of time to adequately discuss and resolve the competing views. The topic is due to come back to the City Council -- but first the Parks and Recreation Commission will review again their recommendation -- and the scaled-down alternative.


Rellis Smith said...

As was said over and over again at the Monday night council meeting, we have no business spending 4 to 6 million dollars on the Cemetery park, the idea of a memorial is much more realistic. I say take it one step further and tell anybody that wants to include a name on the memorial that there will be a charge included. Probably around 2 to 3 hundred dollars.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Rellis. Even to "plan" on spending $6 million on a park renovation that essentially removes a large portion of the park from public use is absolutely ludicrous.

If the City Council approves this, it will go down in history as one of the dumbest moves by the City since the erection of the bus "artwork" at the mall, the 911 fee, the proposed narrowing of Victoria Avenue, the loss of $10 million in risky corporate notes, and the hiring of a consultant for $110,000 to limit the heights of buildings that no one is building.

John Stewart said...

I sat on the Design Review Committee from 2003-2008. When you became City Manager in 2004 I suggested to you that you include city projects in the Design Review process, as they were not being thoroughly addressed from a design or citizen point of view. You said you would do so. From that time until I left the DRC in March 2008 there was never a mention from you or from any city department to me or was there placed on the DRC agenda one word about possible design issues surrounding Cemetery Park, yet you and Mike Montoya sent out ROP's with a scope of work which had not really been vetted by the general community, much less the DRC. During this period of time I became interested in this matter independently from anything going on within the city staff arena. I had contacted Mr. Schleder, who was quite informed. The Grand Jury Report of 2005-6 centered on whether the City actually owned the land and noted that past commitments by the City were not fulfilled and what was the city going to do about it ? In reviewing the hand-delivered letter to said Grand Jury on 02/23/06 from Parks Supervisor Jerry Revard, with a copy to you, it appears the City had cobbled together a makeshift response to the Grand Jury request for a progress report. I note the Parks and Recreation Commission and Public Arts Commission were involved, but that the DRC was not. Neither of those commissions have much knowledge about the issues which now seem to still be quite unresolved. The numbers you've thrown out in your piece here are not at all reflective of other methods of addressing the Cemetery Park matter; your "budget" figures and the overall design concept, which guidelines were apparently established by Mike Montoya and yourself. The resultant plan reflected very little citizen or citizen-design input and was devoid of much real creativity or much in the way of method sof community involvement to keep the costs down. You were just trying to meet a Grand Jury deadline. The resultant plan, by two out-of-city landscape architects, was, in my opinion, non-reflective of much imagination. The budget reflects a budget based on your and Mr. Montoya's ideas. There are plenty of ways to address this project with community involvement - how come there hasn't been any sought in a really relevant way ? A public meeting to review what you have already come up with is not exactly a charette.

Rick Cole said...

There is a certain mentality that says, "My mind is made up, don't confuse me with other people's views."

There were numerous well-attended public meetings and a public survey. There were lots of opinions heard. Some want a full restoration of the cemetery, completely eliminating the park use. Some want the park left alone, with the exception of a memorial so they can enjoy the park as it is today, including running their dogs off leash in defiance of the existing law. Some, including the citizens on the Parks and Recreation Commission, have endorsed an ambitious plan to try to balance these competing views with a long-term park improvement plan.

It is certainly understandable to have strong views of what should be done. But what's discouraging is the tendency to dismiss other views as "ridiculous" or the result of some conspiracy.

But perhaps that is the nature of the blogosphere. Who will take the trouble to post comments unless they strongly disagree?

Anonymous said...


You must have missed the point on removing a large portion of the park from public use, by virtue of the 3,000 bronze markers that were proposed to be strewn across the lawn area, thus usurping its use by the public.

It is unconscionable for the City Council to even consider doing this. This is a public park. It belongs to the public, not the City Council, not the Parks and Recreation Commission, not some out of town landscape design firm, and certainly not a small group of preservationists with a narrow-minded, self-interested focus.

It belongs to the people and the people spoke on June 1st that they would like the park to remain as it is, in perpetuity. What part of "leave it alone" don't they seem to grasp?

Rick Cole said...

The last anonymous posting pretty much makes my point. Anon says "the people" want it preserved as a park "in perpetuity." Yet the preservationists maintain that it was dedicated as a cemetery "in perpetuity." Both claim to speak with moral authority and castigate the Council for not seeing it their way. A curious case. Both sides are equally convinced of their unselfish righteousness. And both insist the City ignore other voices . . .

John Stewart said...

There are at least 53 parks within the city limits of the City of Ventura. All of them have signs posted by Parks and Recreation stating the name of the park - except Cemetery Park. Why is this ? Is it a subliminal recognition by Parks and Recreation that it is not really a park - but a cemetery - and always has been ? That's what the state law indicates. You attempt to minimalize Mr. Schleder's valiant efforts to do the right thing by minimalizing what he sought in your initial comments. The fact that a few very boistrous dog owners who live in the vicinity do not want to go to any of the other 52 city parks to service their dogs is not the problem of the City, its other residents - past and present. State law regards the cemeterys as permanent . Though there may have been umpteen meetings on the matter, the resultant layout by the Marina Del Rey landscape architects to the tune of a reported $70000.00 reflects pretty much what you and Mr. Montoya sought in terms of placement of the various elements. The resultant budget is a reflectionm of your choices. The fact that certain elements of the community choose not to recognize the site for what it really is calls for leadership to explain it. Where is the leadership ? Right in the middle of Harvard Yard in Cambridge there is a four hundred year old cemetery with hundreds of headstones. It is part of the community. Why do you choose to avoid the subject of replacing the known headstones ? Here we have a rather less-than-honorable city history on this matter which we all are trying to address, but there needs to be some intellectual honesty about what is really going on here - a group of people who lack a certain understanding about how things are supposed to be done ( or do not want to do it ) are loudly venting, kicking & screaming. The city needs to do what is right here. Otherwise we end up in the state we are in - trying to please everybody and satisfying none. Seems like an opportunity for some boldness. Please don't be so defensive. This is why you get the big bucks and your own taxpayer-paid website. My suggestion would be to use this project to generate community involvement throughout not only the design process but the execution, relying on volunteers, scout troops, contributing contractors, heirs of the dead, stone masons etc. to contribute their time and effort. Certain people could round up all the old headstones.

John Stewart said...

Your comment today attempts to pit one side against the other - the "people" vs. the "preservationists". This is inappropriate in leadership. It's an example of a sort of class warfare. How about using neither and simply following the "law" ? The "people" consist of a majority in your world ?

Anonymous said...

On the side of "leaving it alone", I would simply add that this park has not been used as a cemetery, but, rather, as a passive recreational park, for many, many, many years. I would think this should count for something.

The City Council and the Parks & Recreation Commission seem sold on the notion of restoring it to its previous use as a cemetery. This fits right in with the mentality of the current City Council to master plan everything to death. One would hope that common sense would prevail somewhere along the way.

The concept of democracy rests on one simple principle -- majority rules. There couldn't be a better example of this than keeping Cemetery Memorial Park as a passive use park that's available for all residents to use for recreational purposes. It's currently serving the living, not the dead. Let's keep it that way!

John Stewart said...

Anonymous said:

" This park has not been used as a cemetery, but, rather, as a passive recreational, for many, many, many years. I would think this would count for something."


The fact is this: It is a cemetery, whether one likes to think it is or not. The problem here is there has been wishy washy city leadership on the matter for decades. Nobody has had the intestinal fortitude to address the matter head-on. The City Council deserves much credit, especially Mayor Weir, for stepping up to the plate on this. The fact that "anonymous" wants to suggest it has been "used" as a "passive recreational park" ( a little landscape architect lingo ) for "many, many, many years" does not change the fact of what it is - it's a real cemetery which has been used for other than what it is. If the residents of Ventura want to make it into a "passive recreational park", then there are legal methods for doing that - so far, those legal methods have not been addressed. There are state laws governing this. Cemetery Park was not, as "anonymous" suggests, "previously used as a cemetery" - it has always been a cemetery - it's just that wishing it were a "passive recreational park" doesn't make it so. This has absolutely nothing to do with the "mentality of the current City Council to master plan everything to death". It has more to do with people like "anonymous" who refuse to deal maturely and intelligently with the existing facts.

"The concept of democracy rests on one simple principal-- majority rules."

Comment: The concept of this democracy is that we are a nation of laws and not of men. I submit that if "anonymous" puts his/her money where his/her mouth is then they will personally pony up the money to take a vote of the populace on this matter - that will dertermine the true "majority" and I think they will still be overturned by state law. Again, there are another 52 parks in town.

Again, it was the Grand Jury who asked the City to get something constructive done on this and still we await that result.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Mr. Stewart would like to put his money where his mouth is and pony up the $6 million that it would take to convert this park from its existing use back to a cemetery. What do you say, John? Can we put you down for that?

Despite all the obfuscation and meandering by Mr. Stewart, the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of the users of this park (and certainly far more than those few people in the City who may have ancestors buried there) would like it to remain as a park, not a cemetery. That's called majority rules in anyone's book and certainly is the hallmark of our democratic form of government.

I've got to believe the City Council would agree with this.

John Stewart said...

Some decades ago, Forest Lawn wanted to start a new cemetery in Covina next to the San Bernardino Fwy. They discovered it would be a lot easier to get approved if their were at least one existing body buried somewhere on the property's many acres. So they lowered a body from a helicopter one night and arranged for it to be buried. They won approval. This illustrates the Cemetery Park point in another manner - once bodies are buried on a site, the site is legally a burial site.

Anonymous said...

The "city" doesn't own it, return it to a cemetery and apologize to all for what the city has done to it.


Tegmeyer said...

Perhaps if one of your family members was buried in the cemetery you would take a different attitude.
You can't change the fact that 3000 people are buried here. It IS a cemetery and until the 3000 people's remains are removed and reburied in another cemetery it will remain a cemetery.
I am outraged over the dessecration of my family members grave.
Anyone who thinks that letting dogs poop on cemetery property is not giving the respect due to these families

Anonymous said...

Wow, you guys sure have liberal interpretations of land use law. The fact is that this property has been used as a public park for decades and the City of Ventura has treated it as such during this same time period.

It is completely up to the City Council if they want to turn it back into a cemetery. However, they are not legally bound to do so.

So, as I said before, it should come down to what the majority in the community desires. That's what we elected our City Council members to do -- listen to the will of the people. I am confident they will do just that in this instance.

Bob said...

My gret grandfather arrived in Ventura in 1860 and he is along with my greatgrand mother and one of my my great aunts are buried in St. Mary's Cemetery and I cringe every time I think a dog is defecating on there graves or anyone's beloved relatives grave. Return it back to the people who founded and built Ventura.

John Stewart said...


I spoke earlier about a community-based plan involving citizens from around the community to minimuze cost. The "existing use" is, in fact, a cemetery, which has been bootlegged into a "park". If you want to reach your goal, get yourself another location, get yourself "shovel ready" and dig up all 3000 sets of remains and legally place them there. Then we'll talk.

William Pagdon said...

Do those that desecrate these graves do the same to those of their loved ones?
Where are their loved ones buried?
Is it legal to defecate on their graves?
Have they proposed making it legal to do so?
They are far worse then cemetery vandals who topple grave stones.

Anonymous said...

John Stewart,

And I would argue that if you wish to go the route of relocating 3,000 grave sites to another location, then you should be willing to pay for it. The taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for this. The preserve the park group is amenable to a compromise, significantly scaled-down plan that would call for erecting a memorial wall to commemorate those buried at the park. But, the $6 million Cadillac version is not acceptable, especially with the 3,000 bronze markers included that would absorb all the open space area.

Anonymous said...

It's a cemetary, not a dog park. Over 3,000 people are buried there. Anybody who thinks otherwise is in denial of the truth. Could you immagine the stink that would occur if people took their dogs to Ivy Lawn and played frisbee?

Anonymous said...

It's not a cemetery now. It's a public park, which, yes, includes dog walking as one of its permissible activities.

I realize it's an emotional issue and I truly empathize with the folks who have relatives interred at this park, but, for better or for worse, this former cemetery has evolved into a public park over time and that's what it's being used as currently.

There is a compromise proposal that has been advanced to the City Council that would allow for full recognition of the family members who are buried there -- as part of a memorial wall structure that could be erected there.

We have to come to agreement on something that works for both sides. Neither the preserve the park advocates nor the return it to a cemetery proponents can get 100% of what they want here. There has to be some sort of compromise reached.

John Stewart said...

Ca. Govt. Code # 65096 - ".....any entitlement for use which would permit all or any part of a cemetery to be used for other than cemetery purposes, the city, county, or city and county shall be given notice pursuant sections 65091-65094...."

Even if the City of Ventura wants to create a "memorial" and its own dog-and-owner show, it will, before it can pull a permit to do so, satisfy all the requirements noted. So, Anonymous, break a leg.

John Stewart said...

"Cemetery" defined: ( Calif Health & Safety Code Sec's. 7003 & 8100 )-

" A place where 6 or more human bodies are buried"


"dedicated for cemetery purposes" .

Anonymous said...

The City is in violation of State law in regards to fencing the perimeter of the CEMETERY.

Here are the Health & Safety Codes from the Cemetery & Funeral Bureau website.

8129. The public cemeteries of cities, towns, or neighborhoods or of fraternal or beneficial associations or societies shall be enclosed and laid off into plots.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s guardian?”

Then He said, “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!

So now you are cursed from the ground that opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood you have shed. Lit blood from your hand

If you work the land, it will never again give you its yield.

You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” Dt 28:16–18; Isa 26:21

Please give us the exact location of the CEMETERY and the Grave site where all of your family is buried so that you might better understand your family's graves being desecrated in this same manner, daily for the last 43 years.

Anonymous said...

"A Grand Jury investigation failed to confirm his legal arguments..."

The 2004-5 Grand Jury Report, in fact, substantiates Steve Schleder's legal arguments and adds their own fruitless title search results.

"...however, during the investigation the Grand Jury discovered some disturbing historical information about the cemetery and actions taken by Ventura officials in the past.
The following six concerns deal with the conversion of the City Cemetery to its current
dual-function cemetery and park and the City’s current improvement plan:

• The City allowed the cemetery to deteriorate without taking appropriate remedial action, other than to build high hedges to shield the unsightly view and once each year weeded and cleaned the site. After years of neglect, the City then used the cemetery’s run-down condition to justify a
plan to convert the site to a dual-function cemetery and park.

• The City adopted an improvement plan for the cemetery, marketed the
plan to obtain public support and then failed to perform fully to the terms of the plan.

• The City removed and stored some 500 tombstones and crypts, moving
them from time to time, using some to stabilize the land beneath a golf course and ultimately discarding those remaining.

• The current dual-function site contains no signage that identifies it as an historic cemetery. It is neither fenced nor gated and therefore never closes. People allow their dogs to run freely without regard to the
inevitable result.

• The City is planning to renovate the site and is currently conducting a survey to collect public input. The survey focuses on that portion of the property containing a paved parking lot and a small lawn area, representing only 19% of the total property. Although the City has stated
awareness that there is significant history relative to those buried on the site, there appears to be more interest in developing a more active park
with children’s play area and structure, picnic area and benches as opposed to providing a more serene or sacred environment.

• Although the City acknowledges there may be bodies buried beneath the parking lot asphalt, there is no immediate plan to implement an existing proposal to verify burials. The City plans to perform the verification if and when this portion of the site is renovated.

Another concern is the lack of a deed or other definitive City action in the acquisition of
two parcels, known as the Protestant and Hebrew sections, of the cemetery. The chain of ownership for these parcels is unclear and incomplete."

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but it now appears that the tin foil hats have been broken out and distributed. Can we all come back to the common sense question - Does it make sense to spend $6 million on a park renovation plan that a majority of the park users do not support?

That is the question that will be posed to the City Council when this issue comes back to them in the near future. It would behoove the cemetery plan folks to come up with better arguments than those that are being posted here. Or, better yet, a compromise position.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Cole:

Let us first, compromise the graves of your grandmothers and your grandfathers.

What the City and the Church have done is illegal.

You are asking us to be complaisant to the violations of State, Federal and Catholic Canon cemetery law?

gmantwenty4 said...

I am a genealogist descended from a family that goes back 8 generations in the area. I have countless relatives buried at St. Mary's cemetery, a cemetery which far too many people mistakenly refer too as a park. The area referred to as Cemetery Park is by all legal and grammatical definitions a CEMETERY.
I attended the City Council Meeting on June 1st concerning the Master Plan. If I remember correctly the projected cost for just the bronze markers was $600,000. I suggest we forget all of the other aspects of the plan: the garden walk, the veteran memorial path, the "riparian" area, etc. and focus on the markers. All previously removed stones that can be accounted for should be returned and set in their original locations (assuming there have been no respective exhumations since the removal of the stones). In addition, notice should be given stating that descendants who wish to have markers (bronze, stone, marble, whatever) placed may have the option to do so. A fence, wall, etc. should be placed around the cemetery and pathways can be paved where they once existed. If people wish to stroll or jog peacefully (minus the dogs) through the cemetery they may do so; just as I have seen them do at Ivy Lawn and Nordhoff cemeteries. If they stay on the paths and enjoy the scenery that is fine by me, as long as they do it within established operating hours as a California cemetery is legally obligated to state.
Such a project could well be done largely through volunteer labor as it has been done in similar situations.
I can understand why the City wants to have it both ways; park and cemetery. It is less costly and relieves them of the responsibility of righting a wrong done by their predecessors. Unfortunately for them it is a problem they have inherited and being public officers I believe it is their obligation to at least adhere to the law. Maybe it is true that currently a majority may not like the law and since this is a democracy it is their prerogative to change it. However, until then the law is the law and the law states that the cemetery should have an enclosing fence with stated hours of operation. Otherwise the law says all bodies must be exhumed and reinterred in an alternate location before they can legally transform the location into a park.
Whether you do or don't agree with any moral or religious arguments for restoring the cemetery, you cannot dispute the legal arguments.

Rick Cole said...

Gmantwenty4 certainly makes a straight-forward case for the reversion to cemetery status. Frankly, the law seems a lot less cut-and-dried than a number of lay people assert. If it were clear, one would think that the Grand Jury would have come to that conclusion or an aggrieved citizen/relative/church would have gone to court and righted what has been so often asserted as an open-and-shut case. Now, I want to be clear, I'm not arguing that just because the City hasn't been successfully sued that the City is on firm legal ground. Rather, I think the last two City Attorneys have taken an objective look and said the various provisions of the law that are cited don't necessarily fit the situation. I'm inclined to take their advice over the well-meaning (and possibly correct) advice to the contrary.

Anonymous said...

A PARK dedication may not be combined with the present cemetery dedication, because the existing cemetery dedication is prohibitive of any other uses. The courts have consistently ruled so.

Because of our opposing views in this matter we could probably argue this issue many times over. It has been several years now that we have contended the city failed to follow proper procedures in its handling of these cemeteries. Perhaps now might be the time to present the issue to the Attorney General for a formal opinion in the matter. Such a request would naturally require an in depth presentation of the history of what the city has already done in regards to the cemeteries and relate to whether or not the city may legally convert this occupied cemetery land to a city park.

Would you agree that such an opinion would be of value given our disparate positions?