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.”


This is a cemetery that has our founding fathers and residents of Ventura. We should honor them by recreating the memorial that belongs to them and
not to trample over their graves as if they didn't exist. I live near Cemetery Park and it is a shame that dogs run all over with total disregard to the original Ventura residents below them. It is really sickening that Ventura County has no respect for our pioneer families that have passed,the people that made this town for us to enjoy and live in.
Using this as a "dog park" is absolutely disgusting and repulsive. I cannot believe somebody would petition against preserving a cemetery just because they consider this a meeting place and dumping ground (dog feces) for their dogs. Can't they take their dogs elsewhere? Besides this is a cemetery that should be used to honor our dead,and our passed veterans that fought for
this country, just so dogs can defecate on our dead soldiers. I could write a book, but this just sums up as being absolutely sickening! The 'park' is
utilized by teenagers partying and by the homeless leaving their disgusting litter and their other human urine & excrement. It disgusts me there are actually people like that in our world today. Where's the city enforcement of the exhisting laws, rules, and codes? Non-exhistant as usual.

posted by 1dotherightthing2 on 2/27/09 @ 11:03 a.m.

Looks as though the land has transitioned into usage that serves the current need of a gathering place for the living and their "best friends." If I were there "pushing up daisies," I would enjoy hearing the sounds of happy activity. It is locally referred to as "Cemetery Park." It is a cemetery and it is a memorial park. I don't see why it can't be both--St. Mary's Cemetery Park. If a $4 million grant can be raised for bronze markers and a sidewalk, maybe the money would better serve the obviously community-designated use by raising a single monument with all the names of those resting in peace and just a couple of the services that our other parks and cemeteries receive--security monitoring and maintenance.

posted by JB on 3/01/09 @ 03:18 p.m.

Why doesn't the city pay fror the hundreds of tombstones, above ground crypts, family plot curbs, veteran's masoleums, and other expensive private property marble cemetery markers that the city confiscated illegally and destroyed?
3000 family grvae monuments multiplied by the current cost of marble gravestones might be over $4 million dollars to begin with in lawful loss recompense after the cities unethical actions.
Not to mention that if the city of Ventura gets class action suit from just some of the families presented by the famous govt oversight law copmpany 'Judicial Watch'....How much will the city lose fighting this case in lawyers bills or paying a lost judgement? ...ANSWER: A whole lot MORE tah $4 million dollars!!!

posted by 1dotherightthing2 on 3/02/09 @ 03:26 p.m.

As long as we're imagining lawsuits, shouldn't we also be considering expected losses in real estate value for all nearby properties?

When buyers bought into the Memorial Park neighborhood they relied on the benefits of a permanent public park. They couldn't have reasonably anticipated the significant decrease in value which would occur if the park's character was changed, to be generally perceived as a cemetery.

Regardless of which label is technically correct, home buyers and renters are going to decide for themselves whether Memorial Park has the positive influence of an attractive open park or the negative stigma of a cemetery. The effect on the value of nearby properties is obvious. That's probably why the city completed the transformation during the development frenzy of the 1960's.

posted by JK on 3/03/09 @ 01:49 p.m.

This sounds like the anti-Prop 8 crowd - whomever is the loudest thinks they win. There are over 50 ( as in FIFTY ) city-owned public parks within the city limits of San Buenaventura. My advice: find a park and make application for your pissing dogs to hang out there. The number of dogs proliferating on the site seems to increase with the intensity of the debate - today there were about 30 - the younger dog-owning whiners can only say " that's not what I thought when I bought the house" - what about my property values. Or " I don't want to sit on some piece of bronze". Mike Montoya hasn't the intestinal fortitude to floow the law on this. Steve Schleder should be given an award instead of all of this whining.

posted by juandeveras on 3/08/09 @ 01:33 a.m.