Cemeteries need better upkeep, report says

Feb. 23, 2014 @ 06:57 PM

The city’s two public cemeteries need about $5.7 million in renovations to fix paving and drainage problems, improve operations and make them more attractive to residents, a local landscape architect and the General Services Department say.

“It’s just a matter of deferred maintenance over the years,” General Services Director Joel Reitzer told the City Council, before asking landscape architect Dan Jewell to go over his findings.
Jewell’s report addressed conditions at Maplewood and Beechwood cemeteries, which between them cover about 143.5 acres and contain about 72,000 burial plots.
Maplewood is the much the larger of the two and also the older, covering about 120 acres and dating from 1872. It’s off Chapel Hill Road, near Duke University, and has about 58,000 plots.
Beechwood is at the intersection of Fayetteville Street and East Cornwallis Road, next to White Rock Baptist Church. Opened in 1924, it covers 23.5 acres and has about 14,000 plots, Reitzer said.
Combined, they handle about 340 burials a year, with Maplewood usually acquiring about two new residents for every person interred at Beechwood.
General Services operates the cemeteries and is responsible for their upkeep. Reitzer hired Jewell last year to size up conditions, out of recognition, he said, that the city “has not been keeping up with the crumbling infrastructure” in them.
The cemetery staff generally stays busy preparing for burials and dealing with the families of the departed. Money for major renovations would come from the city’s capital improvements program.
There’s $290,000 left over in the program for cemeteries from past bond issues and budget allocations, but the council didn’t allot any new money for them in fiscal 2013-14.
In fact, there’s no additional CIP money earmarked for cemeteries from now through the summer of 2019. Jewell’s report could set the stage for changing that.
He told the council it looks to him that Maplewood needs about $4.8 million in work and Beechwood about $931,500.
Of that, about $1.8 million should go into high-priority repairs, including moves to fix drainage and erosion problems at both cemeteries, knock down a condemned building at Maplewood, repair failing roadways and improve accessibility for the disabled.
The cemeteries between them contain about 5.5 miles of internal driveways and roads, and through the years the responsibility within city government for paving them hasn’t been clear, Jewell said.
Public Works normally arranges the paving of city owned streets, but building maintenance and cemetery operations fall under General Services.
Like city streets, a cemetery’s internal roads can decay and fall apart, and it’s much more expensive to rebuild them from the foundation up than to give them a new topcoat of asphalt.
And drainage systems that don’t work can “create a plethora of problems” involving erosion and rot, Jewell said.
Beyond the short-term needs, Jewell suggested upgrades to make sure “folks who have put their loved ones in these facilities [receive] a little better experience than what they’re getting now.”
Possibilities included added parking at the cemetery offices, added columbarium space to accommodate the remains of those who opt for cremation, and better landscaping and screening of roads and operations buildings at Beechwood.
He said Maplewood has security issues, mostly involving vandalism and the theft of some well-known grave markers. There’s a “huge need” there for “safer and more secure entrances,” in part because Chapel Hill Road and Kent Street both pass through its burial ground.
Some of its driveway exits date from the horse-and-buggy days and are too close together to pass muster with regulators were officials building Maplewood from scratch, Jewell said.
Maplewood’s potential costs are larger than Beechwood’s mainly because Maplewood is physically so much larger, he said. Maplewood also has most of the cemeteries’ internal road mileage and houses the majority of the cemetery program’s operations and administrative buildings.
There is a $1.6 million “perpetual care fund” for the burial grounds, but it “in no way comes close to covering the cost [for upkeep], so this is a tax-supported situation,’ City Manager Tom Bonfield said.
Reitzer said General Services has drawn on the care fund for some projects, to perhaps include some priority drainage work Public Works has already addressed.
Council members left it to Bonfield and Reitzer to suggest next steps. Officials are in the early stages of the city’s fiscal 2014-15 budget process.
Councilman Eddie Davis noted the cemeteries do have a racial history. He did not elaborate, but when segregation was the law of the land, Maplewood served whites and Beechwood blacks.
The cemetery report arrived on the same day the council discussed a staff suggestion for financing the maintenance of city parks.
Members were cool to the idea of earmarking the revenue generated by a penny on the city’s property tax rate – about $2.4 million annually – to a parks initiative.