Balto. Co. pet cemetery poses challenge for neighbors, officials

County councilman plans legislation to limit development, protect pet owners' rights

August 13, 2012|By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

At the Oakleigh Pet Cemetery in Parkville, Bobby the Wonder Monkey's tombstone is hidden in ivy. Weeds surround the grave of Monsetta, remembered as "Our only girl." And on Snookie's stone marker, the epitaph "Until the end our faithful pal" is barely visible behind the brush.

The owner of the 2.5-acre cemetery near Loch Raven Boulevard says he is trying to clean up, but he has racked up nearly $30,000 in unpaid county fines and fees for persistent problems such as overgrown vegetation, junk scattered on the grounds and broken windows. Neighbors also say the property is a hot spot for teen troublemakers.

Unkempt pet cemeteries have posed challenges for local officials around the country. And in recent years, some Maryland lawmakers have pushed unsuccessfully for legislation to regulate about a half-dozen pet cemeteries in the state. The state's Office of Cemetery Oversight, which enforces standards and investigates consumer complaints about human cemeteries, does not monitor animal graveyards.

Now, Baltimore County Councilman David Marks plans a zoning change to limit future development of the Oakleigh Pet Cemetery property. Separately, Marks intends to introduce legislation aimed at protecting the rights of owners of pets buried there.

The property went to tax sale in 2010 for unpaid taxes as well as code violations, county officials said. A company called Azure Capital Management LLC bought the lien, and this March, the firm filed court papers to start the foreclosure process. The owner would need to pay more than $52,000 to remove the property from tax sale, county officials said.

"It's a real eyesore, and it's a real problem property for us," said Marks, a Perry Hall Republican whose family buried a cat named Tuna at Oakleigh in the 1980s. "There's not the protections you have under human cemeteries."

The county adopted regulations on pet cemetery maintenance a few years ago in response to residents' complaints. But Marks said those who have paid for lots should be protected in case the land is ever redeveloped. Some people have paid hundreds of dollars to bury their pets there, according to interviews and county records.

The bill being drafted by Marks would require cemeteries to notify owners of buried pets when the land is sold, and to move the remains to another graveyard. People who have bought but not yet used a plot would have to be reimbursed under the bill, which he plans to introduce next month.

Cemetery owner John Williams, who bought the property in 2009, said he doesn't want to see it developed. Williams said he hired a maintenance person about two months ago but that the employee has been sick and unable to work recently. "I want to see it in tip-top shape," he said of the cemetery.

Williams said he feels overwhelmed by the amount he owes but that he's trying to find the money to remove the cemetery from tax sale. All the code enforcement citations feel like a personal attack, he said, as if county inspectors are writing tickets out of spite. "It's so frustrating to me because I feel that the county is pushing their weight on me," Williams said.

A lawyer with Azure Capital Management LLC could not be reached to comment.

Area resident Marshall Chalkley has several dogs buried at the cemetery and said he's upset by the condition of property. When his current beagle dies, he said, he'll make different arrangements.

"She's not coming here," he said. "She's going to be cremated."

The cemetery is a source of neighborhood lore. Some neighbors say they remember hearses driving up to the graveyard. Others have heard that actress Shirley Temple's pet monkey is buried there, said area resident Jessica Moore, who added that she has tried to research whether that's true but could not confirm the tale.

Parts of the cemetery are maintained, the grave sites cleared and visible. One family buried a ferret named Princess Reich, engraving her tombstone with the words, "Our precious little girl." Another pet named Cupcake is memorialized as "our beautiful Miss America." One grave site is marked "Chico" and "Chico II." Another lists nearly a dozen poodles — including Chi-Chi, T-Nee and T-Na — that appear to have belonged to one family.

A house on the site once was home to four families, even though it was not registered as a rental property and was deemed unsafe, according to county records.

A code-enforcement file on the cemetery is filled with photos of the property, as well as tickets and hearing records.

County code enforcement chief Lionel Van Dommelen acknowledged that fines alone may not be enough to prompt property owners to clean up.

"You can only keep putting fines on a piece of property for so long," Van Dommelen said, adding that unpaid fines are assumed by the buyer when such properties are sold. "If you place too many fines on a piece of property, even an investor at a tax sale is not going to want to buy that property."

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