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

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."

The property drew complaints before Williams owned it. The first complaint on file with the county was made in 2004 for tall grass and weeds, Van Dommelen said.

Williams said he bought the land as an investment and planned to run it as a pet cemetery but acknowledges that he didn't know what he was getting into. Many of the remaining plots have been reserved already, and there's little room left. Williams now plans to install mausoleums around the perimeter of the cemetery, he said.

"I didn't really realize it was as full as it was," Williams said. "I didn't think about that."

Maryland has about six pet cemeteries, said Andrew Mazan, director of Nicodemus Memorial Park, run by the Baltimore Humane Society in Reisterstown. Some human cemeteries also have sections for pets, he said.

State lawmakers' efforts took place after problems at the Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park in Elkridge, which had fallen into disrepair. According to a legislative analysis of the state bills, that cemetery held about 22,000 animals and at least 20 pet owners.

In Silver Spring, the nearly 8-acre Aspin Hill Memorial Park also suffered from neglect. The Montgomery County Humane Society took over the property in 2007, and volunteers have helped spruce up the site, which was full of weeds and debris, said spokeswoman b j Altschul. About 50,000 animals and dozens of humans are buried there, she said.

"It was not easy for us to make improvements and changes," Altschul said. "It was very difficult at first. … With the passage of time and with persistence, the site is definitely looking brighter now."

Pet owners should always ask whether a cemetery has a perpetual care fund to help to maintain grave sites, said Coleen Ellis of the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance, a national organization of people who provide services such as pet burial, cremation and funerals.

Ellis founded the nation's first stand-alone pet funeral home and now runs the Two Hearts Pet Loss Center, a consulting firm in the Indianapolis area. Many people consider their pets family, she said. Baby boomers whose children have left home think of their pets as kids, she said. Younger people who haven't had children feel the same.

"They're becoming the confidant and the safety and the security, or the child and the best friend," she said. "They fill that role."

Some Maryland lawmakers have tried to tighten controls. In 2006 and 2007, state legislation was introduced to regulate pet cemeteries but did not pass.

While many states have some regulations for pet cemeteries, they're rarely enforced, said Poul Lemasters, the lawyer for Ellis' group.

"There's just not the manpower or the resources for either the local city or the county or municipality or even the state to really follow up with pet cemeteries," he said.

But he said business owners in the pet "death care" industry are increasingly facing liability risks over issues such as pets being buried in the wrong plots, and there's been a push for regulation.

"We are in a society now where people care, a lot of times, more about their pets than they do about the rest of their families," he said.