IMPERIAL — In between here and Brawley lies Memory Gardens Cemetery, a piece of land that resembles more a patch of empty desert than the resting place of hundreds of county residents.
Foreclosure hit this cemetery, reportedly more than once, while owners have come and gone.
In 2007 for instance, San Diego resident and former owner Edgar Ballesteros promised to beautify the cemetery and have it fully operational by 2010. Two years later, this cemetery continues its long demise, now under the ownership of Pistol River Properties Ltd., a company that owned the property even before Ballesteros.
For years residents like Linda Cooke have pushed to keep the memory of Memory Gardens Cemetery alive. Cooke’s contribution has been an annual flower drive that puts new flowers on dirty old graves that also get a cleanup.
“You don’t know what a joy it is to watch everybody that comes out there work together,” said Cooke, “and after it’s done, we stand back and look and say, ‘Oh my God,’ because of the color that the new flowers bring out there. The cemetery is in such poor shape that anything new makes it stand out.”
Cooke, who’s counted more than 850 graves at Memory Gardens, dislikes that several owners haven’t done anything about it. After years the cemetery is still an eyesore, she said “and I haven’t given up my fight, I’ll continue to fight until there is no fight left in me for that cemetery.”
Cooke’s battle to bring the cemetery back just got a boost this Friday thanks to the United Veterans Council of Imperial County.
“I make a motion that the UVC move forward and approach the board … to continue negotiating,” said veteran Robert Avila while referring to the offering of county Supervisor Gary Wyatt. Wyatt reportedly approached the UVC about a month ago, and asked if it would take over the cemetery and turn it into a veterans cemetery if the owner donated the land.
The roughly 10 veterans present at the meeting unanimously approved the motion, which came after a lengthy discussion on what it would entail to accept the offering. And while all supported the offering, Lee Quarcelino noted before the meeting that the association and some veterans are weary about the deal over liability concerns and taxes the property owes.
However, veteran Jay Kruger said during the meeting that liability issues could be resolved “if we get county counsel to put us under their umbrella of insurance.” Additionally, it was discussed in the meeting that Wyatt said the county could forego past dues while the UVC, as a nonprofit, won’t have to pay taxes in the future.
County Counsel Mike Rood said the county could consider helping the UVC with waiving permits and other things needed.
“I think the civic (advantages) of having a well-maintained cemetery are high and it’s something that we could look at it.”
But liability and taxes aren’t the only challenge the association is facing.
In fact, Chuck Jernigan, superintendent of Evergreen Cemetery, said that bringing Memory Gardens back would be “a monumental task.”
“I’m sure there (are) people that have their own lots,” said Jernigan, adding the association will have to search records to find existing owners. And then there’s infrastructure, said Jernigan, adding; “specifically water system, irrigation system, that would be very expensive.” Moreover, equipment and staff will be needed to maintain the location and open and close graves if the cemetery became operational, said Jernigan, adding he wished the veterans “all the luck in the world.”
Equipment and staffing issues were also discussed in the meeting, as it was noted that the UVC has in-kind donations that could make this project possible, particularly because the UVC is looking to improve just 17 acres of the 80 that make up the cemetery to begin with, said Quarcelino.
As far as maintenance, Kruger said farmers have already shown interest in renting some of the land. In addition, solar companies have been contacted, and they could place panels that could provide the revenue needed to maintain the cemetery.
Cooke, who was also present at the meeting, said she was in favor of the plans, but similarly to other attendees, she asked that the whole deal be put in writing.
“I don’t want to have expectations up and then have them drop back down again like they have the last seven years,” she said.
And putting any agreement on paper before the UVC begins gathering the resources is the next step, said Quarcelino, who considers that bringing the cemetery back “is going to take a countywide effort.”
Some 56 veterans are buried in the cemetery.
Staff Writer Alejandro Davila can be reached at 760-337-3445 or email@example.com
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