Petition opposing graveyard memorial gains momentum
Ventura citizen activists remain vocal against city plans, though other legal issues remain at the heart of Cemetery Park
By Paul Sisolak 02/26/2009
Members of a citizens group averse to a proposed multimillion-dollar memorial project at Cemetery Park are earning community support in ink through a petition they hope to present to the Ventura City Council this coming spring.
“We’re picking up quite a bit of steam. We have, at this point, probably 500 or 600” signatures, notes Gordon Broberg, president of the Committee to Preserve Cemetery Memorial Park. “For the most part, it’s for people who are interested in keeping the park as it is.”
Signers of the petition oppose the city-sponsored proposal to install a memorial walkway and garden, and thousands of bronze markers at Cemetery Park, which has been, for the last four decades, used primarily as a recreational area for dog owners and their pets.
Bordered by Main and Poli streets at the edge of Downtown Ventura, the park was originally St. Mary’s Cemetery up until the late 1960s, when city officials, in an attempt to clean up the aging property, removed and disposed up to 3,000 headstones.
The main drive behind Broberg’s committee is the sense of friendship and community fostered by people gathering there each afternoon that would be marred if the city follows through with the expensive plans. One of the biggest concerns has also been over the cost and how the project will be funded. The most widely reported price tag is upward of $4 million.
But Mike Montoya, the city’s deputy director of public works and parks, estimates the project to cost about half as much. If the city council approves the plan, money for the project would come through grant funding, not from the city’s budget.
Still, grants or not, the Preserve Cemetery Park committee members believe the money could be put to better use elsewhere during these tough economic times.
“In the state of the economy and the state of the homeless, it’s just too expensive for what the project calls for,” says Diane deMailly, who also criticized the logistics of the plan.
“It’s a beautiful piece of land, and it’s not going to be very welcoming when you have to sit on bronze markers,” she said.
The 10-member committee, according to Broberg, was formed after an original petition against the plan began circulating last fall and fast accumulated signatures. Broberg said the final petition will be presented to the city council in April, when Cemetery Park is next slated to appear on a formal council agenda.
It’s been speculated that any number of legal problems could arise if the council approves the memorial plan — specifically, its official designation. Is Cemetery Park a cemetery? A park? Or both?
According to Steve Schleder, who organized the Restore St. Mary’s Project to bring Cemetery Park back to its original pre-1960s incarnation, headstones and all, to call it a dog park is a misnomer.
“The law states if it’s designated a cemetery, it is, in fact, a cemetery,” he said.
A big contention for Schleder — who’s been working toward making Cemetery Park a state historic landmark — is that even though the tract of land is most popular as a playground for dogs, it was never designated as such. One of the only ways to satisfy both camps, he says, would be to exhume the bodies from the park and re-bury them in a new location.
“Then,” Schleder said, “you can designate a dog park, a swimming pool, a shooting range. But you can’t designate both at once.”
On one hand, Preserve Cemetery Park committee members have applauded former city officials for taking the steps necessary to salvage the cemetery in the mid-1960s, then overgrown with weeds and crumbling grave markers.
“The city saved that piece of land,” deMailly says. “They did everything that was right and proper.”
On the other hand, they take issue with the current council for pushing a plan now when, legalities or not, Cemetery Park has been for decades a very popular outdoor recreational spot in Ventura, even if by sheer association.
“This discussion should have happened 50 years ago,” she said.
“Cemetery Park has a very unfortunate history,” said Brooke Ashworth, a member of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission. “It should have never been converted from a cemetery to another use. That was the decision that was made at the time — probably because the city was the only one willing to step up.”
The park’s official designation notwithstanding, there’s one factor that could be contributing to the confusion. Because Cemetery Park was never intended to be a dog park from the start, local leash law ordinances don’t readily apply there. It could be one reason why, legally, the memorial plan has unnerved people whose dogs are allowed to run freely in Cemetery Park with next to no enforcement.
“I think the (parks and recreation) commission’s pretty clear it shouldn’t be a dog park,” says Ashworth. “It’s used as a dog park, but unfortunately the city fails to enforce the leash laws of its dog parks.”
Ventura has two official dog parks: Arroyo Verde Park on Foothill and Day roads, and Camino Real Park on Dean Drive and Varsity Street. Both are designed for accommodating dog recreation (dog drinking fountains, special gates), and both parks are allowed specific areas for dogs with off-leash hours.
Broberg, of the Preserve Cemetery Park committee, says the language in his group’s petition is clear on the matter.
“We’re not opposed to memorializing the people who are interred there. That’s a clear point of distinction,” he said. “Anybody who says people who are looking to change it to a dog park, the petition is very clear. It mentions nothing of changing the end use of the park. It is what it is today, and we’re petitioning that it remain so.”
Final legal opinion on the matter would have to come down to the city’s attorney, Ariel Pierre Calonne. According to Calonne, it hasn’t been decided yet how the park may be designated.
“It’s possible there would have to be a public hearing to change its characterization,” he said.
As for the petition, the city’s manager, Rick Cole, could not comment if the volume of responses on the document would compromise the memorial plan in any way.
“Anything’s possible whether they’ve got one signature or 10,000 signatures,” he said.
Montoya, of public works and parks, hopes that elusive middle ground can be reached.
“I hope the project is not killed,” he said. “I think many people who have signed the petition don’t know what the project is. I think if they open their minds and their arms a bit they’ll become part of the process rather than be against it.
“It makes it more beneficial for all involved,” he continued. “I don’t know why people won’t want to improve city spaces.”