After complaints, cemetery’s repair, cleanup efforts make progress

 

Cheryl Young places Easter flowers on a family members grave at Sharon Hills Cemetery. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — After years of angst, some optimism arrived early this spring.

That’s according to Sharon Hills Memorial Park plot holders, whose public complaints about upkeep apparently hit their intended targets.

Dover resident Cheryl Young — who with husband Frank has 13 late family members resting at the cemetery west of Dover at 2928 Sharon Hill Road — believes ownership is sprucing up the grounds and fixing roadways that have vexed visiting loved ones for years.

Consternation escalated in August 2017 when Ms. Young expressed frustration to friends about the cemetery’s upkeep, which prompted a Facebook page “Sharon Hills Cemetery Family & Friends Support.”

The social media group had 505 members entering this week, many posting about the ongoing cleanup and repair.

State and county government got involved and elected officials expressed their support as public scrutiny increased the past several months.

“It was a case of government functioning as it should,” Kent County Levy Court Commissioner Jim Hosfelt said.

While concerns remain, customers believe the potholes are being filled, weed whackers are whirring and trash cans have been spray painted.

Spotlighting improvements surrounding the cemetery’s “Garden of Honor” where military veterans lay, Mrs. Young said, “It actually looks pretty nice.”

It’s a start.

Overall, Mrs. Young said, “I’m actually pretty happy with the progress and surprised.

“This is something that has been going on for years.”

Describing herself as “cautiously optimistic” about continued progress, Mrs. Young said she expects more meetings with cemetery representative Louis Ottaviano.

An attempt to reach Mr. Ottaviano for comment was unsuccessful. About a month ago, he described the upkeep as business as usual.

“We fill potholes all the time, so this is nothing new,” he said when asked for comment by the State News. “Other than that, I have no further comment.”

Delaware’s Department of Justice is investigating complaints from Sharon Hills patrons, along with some at Odd Fellows Cemetery at 35 Rising Sun Road in Camden-Wyoming.

Ms. Young said she’s heard of no complaints from the Smyrna area Odd Fellows Cemetery at 420 S. Dupont Boulevard.

On March 14, a DOJ detective joined Mr. Ottaviano, Mr. and Mrs. Young and Mr. Hosfelt at Levy Court for a 90-minute meeting.

“We discussed all of the issues, the main ones being vases missing, driveway potholes, grass coming up through the sidewalks and even things like the terrible attitude of office staff, which has been a big bone of contention with those on the Facebook page,” Mrs. Young said.

According to Mr. Hosfelt, the “movement of head stones and the belief some may not be properly placed” was also discussed and “Once the weather breaks Mr. Ottaviano has agreed to work with us and provide a plot plan so we can verify current and correct placement of markers.”

Mr. Hosfelt said he reviewed police reports from 2013 to 2015 and found that 33 persons had reported thefts from family grave sites at Sharon Hills.

The commissioner said a survey by Mr. and Mrs. Young identified 134 gravesites with supposedly missing vases or urns.

In a Facebook post, Mr. Hosfelt urged anyone who believes they were missing property to contact Delaware State Police Troop 3 Detective Jason Minear at 698-8522 or jason.minear@state.de.us.

“The State Police at Troop 3 are more than willing to help us, but we have to do our part,” Mr. Hosfelt said.

Following complaints, the AG Office’s Consumer Protection Unit opened case files involving both cemeteries.

The Odd Fellows case number is 18-1700524 and Sharon Hills is number 18-17004613. Complaints can be filed online with the CPU at attorneygeneral.delaware. gov/fraud/cpu/complaint/.

On Wednesday, DOJ Spokesman Carl Kanefsky said, “As the case is active, we can’t comment on specifics. I can say we are reviewing information provided to us by the cemetery owner in order to determine what needs to be done next, which will likely involve gathering more documents and information.”

CPU Director Consumer Protection Director Christian Douglas Wright was accompanied by two investigators to a public meeting on Feb. 12 orchestrated by Mr. Hosfelt and attended by approximately 100 government staff, elected officials and disgruntled Odd Fellows and Sharon Hills patrons.

Last month, Mr. Wright confirmed the DOJ had subpoenaed the cemeteries for records covering required funds set aside for perpetual care of plots. Investigators have spent several hours in contact with ownership, the DOJ said and Mr. Wright said “They have been responsive each time we’ve reached out to them.”

Levy Court Code Enforcement Director Shannon Morris fielded questions from the crowd, and Kent County issued a code violation notice for overall property maintenance of sidewalks and roadways the next morning.

Pleased with response

On Wednesday, Levy Court Department of Planning Services Director Sarah Keifer said that some pathways had been removed “which resolves the violation.”

Also, Ms. Keifer said, “They’ve been filling the potholes and grading it. We expect we’ll be able to close the case shortly.”

Mr. Morris took a trip through Sharon Hills on Tuesday to confirm the improvements again, Mr. Keifer said.

Credit was due ownership for the “quick progress,” according to Mrs. Keifer. “I was very pleased with the response we got from the owner. They’re close to being finished and we’re about out of it.”

The cemetery was facing the possibility of a $100 daily fine and misdemeanor charge if Levy Court had opted to take the case to the Justice of the Peace Court.

“There was never any cause for that,” Ms. Keifer said. “As always, compliance is the goal and court is never the preferred option. If we have to go to court over something, my officers see that as a failure.”

Any potential issues at Odd Fellows never rose to the level of official notice, Ms. Keifer said.

“There were no substantial issues at Odd Fellows and it certainly wasn’t in the state that Sharon Hills was,” she said.

While all cemeteries must be registered in the First State, the Delaware Cemetery Board provides administrative support with no regulatory authority.

Attending the February meeting was state Rep. Trey Paradee, D-Cheswold, who said at the meeting he has at least a dozen family members resting at Odd Fellows. The elected official vowed to form a task force evaluating cemetery issues statewide and consider the forming more oversight responsibility at the state level for for-profit enterprises.

Two attempts to meet with the Cemetery Board were thwarted by recent snowstorms, the representative said, and the next try will come at 10:30 a.m. on April 18 at the Modern Maturity Center at 1121 Forrest Avenue in Dover.

“My intent is to get their input on ways that we can expand their responsibilities and powers to set and enforce minimum standards of care for cemeteries, ensure that cemeteries are properly capitalized, and provide services to settle complaints and resolve problems,” Rep. Paradee said this week.

“If it is unreasonable for the Cemetery Board to perform such duties, then I need their help in creating or finding a government entity that would be able to carry out such functions.”

Concerns arose after four arrests of Sharon Hills employees and others regarding missing urns. Charges against all but one person were dropped in an agreement with the Delaware Attorney General’s Office.

In March 2016, the AG’s Office ordered Sharon Hills to restore missing urns to customers in exchange for halting prosecution of employees initially charged with offenses by the Delaware State Police.

Twenty-three urns reported as missing to police were eventually replaced by last summer, the AG said. Mr. Hosfelt said he would check with the AG’s office to confirm that all conditions had been met.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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