Ordinance takes aim at excessive grave decorations

- A Zephyrhills cemetery has gotten the attention of some city leaders. They say the decorations and mementos on some plots are getting a bit out of hand. They're looking to update and possibly tighten restrictions on what can and can't be there.

It's a topic that's not sitting well with everyone who visits loved ones at Oakside Cemetery. Though the current ordinance has been in place for almost 20 years, it hasn't been enforced clearly. People who've spent years creating meaningful memorials for their loved ones are now facing another potential loss.

"Last year, my husband AJ and I had a stillborn son," Natosha Doerr said. "I was 40 weeks, 4 days when we found out he had passed."

Doerr visits her son Jonathan at the cemetery almost every day. It's a place of peace.

"We had a pinwheel out there and when we go and talk to him, we feel if it starts spinning, we feel like he's listening," Doerr said.

But, that pinwheel is gone. She removed it the second time she says the city planted a stake with a notice of non-compliance directly at the site.

"Not only did they have stakes, they spray painted in front of the headstone," Doerr said. "The city said they consider that a toy and I needed to remove it. To us, it's not a toy."

City Manager Steve Spina knows it's a sensitive subject. He said they began to focus on enforcement after complaints came in. "Building fences, 6-foot high flag poles, some of the people that had family members in the cemetery said it was getting to be a little too much," Spina said.

The method of notification didn't go over so well. "It was degrading that the city would even put out the signs," Daniel Corbett said.

This topic is nothing new. The ordinance stating what families can and can't place around a gravestone, and where, has been in place since 1997. It states that "no boxes, statues, shells, toy, discarded glassware, sprinkling cans or similar articles permitted on any grave, lot or tree."

"Unfortunately, we have a sign that's a little misleading in that it says, we 'discourage' instead of 'prohibit' and the other thing is, haven't always provided the rules when someone comes in and purchases a plot," Spina said.

Now, the city is looking to update the ordinance, or at the very least, enforce it more strictly. This has sparked a petition, with more than a thousand signatures, asking the city to leave the grave sites alone.

"This here symbolizes how we honor our deceased ones," Corbett said as he looked at the area where his wife and son rest.

To him, it's sacred ground.

"I can't afford the headstone right now," Corbett said. "This is how my son decorated his mother's grave next to him and I want to keep it exactly how he had it."

While he maintains it, he's asking the city to let him mourn in peace.

"If it wasn't for the decorations out here, it would feel cold," Corbett said. "Let us do what we need to do to mourn properly."

The City Manager says they're planning to meet with families affected by this to hopefully find a compromise. After that, they'll be able to update or adjust the rules, create a more accurate sign and make sure anyone who purchases a grave site gets a copy of the ordinance

There's a meeting on this ordinance Thursday March 10, at 4 p.m. at City Hall.

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