Withlacoochee State Trail memorial benches removed without notice

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For years, memorial benches have lined the 46-mile Withlacoochee State Trail that stretches through Pasco, Hernando, and Citrus counties. But recently, the state has begun removing them, saying they're not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The families who paid for those benches in remembrance of a loved one, however, got no notice.

Debbie Selsavage's late husband, Albert was a Navy chief petty officer and a test pilot for Lockheed Martin. Despite battling dementia later in life, he found freedom cycling the Withlacoochee State Trail.

"At those moments he was riding on that trail, he didn't have dementia," Selsavage said.

After he died in 2010, Debbie paid $500 to place a bench plaque along the trail in Citrus Springs.

"This was what was special to him," Selsavage said. "This was our connection."

But recently, when she went to check on the bench, it was gone.

"I was a little bit perplexed. Like, where is the bench? Did somebody steal it?" she asked. "It's different than just pulling up flowers and re-planting a median."

She learned that it wasn't stolen. Rather, it was removed after the State Department of Environmental Protection found it and others to be non-compliant with ADA standards. Of those removed, around a half-dozen were memorial benches installed before 2010.

"What has happened was very insensitive," Selsavage said. "They didn't let anybody know, they didn't notify anybody, and that was a memorial for a person that's no longer here."

Though trail officials saved the plaque, Selsavage said that the bench itself was dumped in a landfill.

"I feel like they kind of took up a headstone," she continued.

It's unclear why families weren't notified prior to removal. The DEP said, before any more benches are removed, they'll work to make contact with families so memorial plaques can be returned. They say the new ADA-compliant benches will have metal legs, concrete foundation, and artificial wood. 

"They could've made that bench ADA compliant with a pad that someone with a wheelchair or a scooter could be by that person," Selsavage said.

Selsavage -- who preaches "compassionate care" in her company, Coping With Dementia -- wishes more compassion could've been shown here.

"This is exactly what Coping With Dementia is trying to avoid, is thinking that person is just a bench of just a dementia. That was a real person that was dedicated for," she said.

The DEP says the removed memorial benches cannot be reinstalled or relocated in the park. Instead, they're encouraging donations for memorial native trees.