Complaints about cemetery maintenance sparks action

Crumbling bricks along a walkway at Sharon Hills Memorial Park near Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — The expressive reactions, or lack thereof, contrasted starkly.

From Cheryl’s Young’s perspective, seeing the image of a maintenance violations notice was nothing short of thrilling.

For years now, Ms. Young and other Sharon Hills Memorial Park plot holders have claimed shoddy upkeep where their loved ones are buried.

So when the Kent County Code Enforcement Department warned the cemetery to address issues this week, Ms. Young felt the gripes were taken seriously.

To confirm that the business received the infractions notice at 2928 Sharon Hill Road, the county photographed the sign it posted on Tuesday morning.

“Oh, I was overjoyed, I wanted to celebrate when I saw that picture,” Ms. Young said.

The way Sharon Hills spokesman Louis Ottaviano saw it, though, it was business as usual at the site west of Dover.

Kent County Levy Court Chief Code Enforcement Officer Shannon Morris speaks on cemetery issues at a public gathering Monday night. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

“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.”

The citation to fix sidewalk and driveway issues came just hours after a Monday night meeting at Levy Court that drew a crowd of 100 cemetery patrons, elected officials and candidates, state representatives, county staff and the Delaware Department of Justice.

The notice at Sharon Hills spelled out the ramifications of non-compliance, including a misdemeanor charge and progression of fines starting at $100. Each day should be considered a separate offense, according to Levy Court.

A penalty of not more than $1,000 may be imposed at Justice of the Peace Court for each violation. Appeals of convictions could be made at the Court of Common Pleas, according to the notice.

Pictured is a notice of violations sign posted by county offcials at the entrance to Sharon Hills Memorial Park Tuesday morning. (Submitted photo/Levy Court)

The sign was apparently removed in short order, and Levy Court Department of Planning Services Director Sarah E. Keifer said cemetery officials quickly contacted the county. According to Ms. Keifer, ownership met with Code Enforcement Director Shannon Morris for a walk- through and plan to remedy the situation.

“The owner discussed a plan for the short-term and long-term,” Ms. Keifer said. “At this point, we don’t have any reason to believe they won’t follow through.”

County inspectors also planned to drive out to Odd Fellows Cemetery at 35 Rising Sun Road in Camden-Wyoming (owned by the same group as Sharon Hills) this week and investigate citizen complaints.

“We’ve been out there and they definitely have the same problems,” Ms. Keifer said.

Levy Court plans to stay in touch with ownership, Ms. Keifer said, and “we’ll drive through there (intermittently) to monitor the progress.”

Ms. Young said she’s heard of no complaints from the Smyrna area Odd Fellows Cemetery.

Ms. Keifer said the notice of violations is a standard process at many sites in Kent County, and property maintenance compliance is a “daily issue.”

Sharing stories

At the nearly two-hour meeting orchestrated by Levy Court Commissioner Jim Hosfelt, disgruntled cemetery plot holders aired their grievances that covered maintenance, allegedly missing and unreplaced property, supposed lack of response from cemetery personnel among other concerns.

The stories were presented in a passionate manner, often with a tone of frustration growing with each saga recalled. The crowd regularly responded with applause and cheers as some of the recurring themes were expressed.

“It’s good for all of us to do that every once in awhile,” Mr. Hosfelt said of the venting.

The significant crowd size was not lost on Ms. Young.

“We were able to see how serious this is,” she said. “When you have that many elderly people coming out at night, that speaks volumes to me.”

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/.

This week, CPU Director Consumer Protection Director Christian Douglas Wright was accompanied by two investigators to the meeting in Dover.

He confirmed that the DOJ has 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.”

Mr. Wright said he hoped to receive cemetery paperwork within the next three to four weeks as the probe continues.

There were 13 complaints against Sharon Hills and 4 against Odd Fellows at the middle of this week, Mr. Wright said.

The acknowledged request for records was the high point at Monday’s meeting for Kim Tworig, whose parents signed a contract with Sharon Hills in the 1970s. She hopes that the perpetual care agreement will be enforced.

“The cemetery is a final resting placed for loved ones and you’re supposed to go there and feel comfortable and at peace,” she said. “It’s not a place to go there and worry if something has been stolen or is falling apart or overgrown.”

Added Debra Fibelkorn, whose family bought into Sharon Hills in the 1950s, “If I could afford it I would have my parents moved.

“It would have to change a great deal for me to buy into it but I’m very glad the issues are now being officially pursued.”

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

Examining big issues

State Rep. Trey Paradee, D-Cheswold, who said at the meeting he has at least a dozen family members resting at Odd Fellows, pledged to push forward a task force to examine cemetery issues statewide and perhaps create more oversight responsibility at the state level for for-profit enterprises.

All criminal complaints should be reported to police immediately, he said, and civil complaint options could be explored.

Also in the crowd, state senatorial candidate Donyale Hall said “in my humble opinion, it is absurd to dispatch a ‘Task Force’ to address this issue in the Delaware legislature.

“That process would only serve to prolong and hinder an expeditious outcome. A more sensible and cost effective approach, would be to have stake holder meetings in each county, to create the proposed language for sponsored legislation which would form a ‘governing body’ mechanism for cemeteries.

The meeting was a long time coming, considering Ms. Young, Debbie Virdin and others began to draw interest with their complaints that eventually created a Facebook page “Sharon Hills Friends and Support” in August 2017.

As of this week, the group had 503 members and included Odd Fellows patrons who opted to weigh in as well.

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.

This week, a DOJ spokesman said that while that criminal case was closed, “[p]eople who believe urns have been stolen should contact police, as with any theft. The plea agreement in the 2015 case required replacement of urns that had been reported to police and listed as part of the criminal case. Those replacements occurred and the case was closed.”

At Monday’s meeting, some attendees said they were unaware of the official investigation that took place until after the fact.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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