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Park plan casts pall over pet cemetery

Land bought to expand a recreation complex includes the final resting place of 6,000 pets and dozens of their owners.

BRIDGET HALL GRUMET
Published November 30, 2003

LAND O'LAKES - For months, Carolyn Shea hasn't known how to tell them.

They still come to the Oakcrest Pet Cemetery to bury their pets and visit the grassy plots where their furry friends were laid to rest.

Some have bought plots to bury other pets here in the future. Others have drafted wills saying they want their cremains placed here, next to their old companions.

Shea looks at them and wonders: How do you tell them you're closing shop?

"This is going to be a real shocker for them," said Shea, 53, overlooking her tranquil pet cemetery on a recent rainy morning. "I haven't had the heart to tell them.

"There's going to be a lot of crying around here."

Lost in the headlines about the upcoming expansion of the Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex is the fate of Shea's 5-acre pet cemetery, which sits in the middle of the 39.3 acres being added to the park.

The county has promised to preserve the meticulously landscaped cemetery, the burial ground for more than 6,000 animals and dozens of cremated pet owners. But it is unclear whether the county will keep the cemetery open for future burials.

"Is it feasible to continue to operate it? I don't know," said Dan Johnson, the assistant county administrator for public services, which includes parks and animal control.

"We'd like to continue to operate it," he added. "It would fit well with our services. I just don't know if it's feasible or not."

Ultimately the County Commission will decide whether to add "pet cemetery" to its list of government services, Johnson said. It's a policy decision.

Shea hopes for the best. Under the terms of the sale, she must clear out by Jan. 23. Presumably, pet cremations and burials would cease at that time, unless the commission decides to continue them.

If the county doesn't, Shea said, "There are going to be so many people who are brokenhearted."

* * *

The cemetery's story begins in the late 1960s with a short-haired red-head mutt named Sandy, a longtime pet of Shea's family, the Hodgsons.

At age 14 - considered elderly in dog years - Sandy developed a lump on her belly. The veterinarian operated, but Sandy did not survive.

Shea's mother, Dorothy Hodgson, called the veterinarian's office to claim Sandy's body, to be buried in the back yard alongside other family pets.

"He told her they had already disposed of it," Shea recalled. "He used such a nasty word. She said that would never happen to us again."

In 1971, James and Dorothy Hodgson created the Oakcrest Pet Cemetery near their Land O'Lakes home overlooking Gooseneck Lake. When James Hodgson died in 1976, Shea started helping her mother with the operation. She has run it ever since.

Ignore the sign and you might think you're in a human cemetery. Neatly trimmed hedges frame the rows of stone markers. There are benches, statues and giant memorials, including one holding the cremains of James and Dorothy Hodgson.

A white gazebo overlooks the horse burial section. A stucco cottage includes an office and a small chapel. A giant camphor tree shades a rock garden, a special burial place for police dogs built last spring by an Eagle Scout.

The cemetery is a final resting place for all kinds of animals: a butterfly, a chimpanzee, snakes, iguanas, opossums, and lots of cats and dogs. It averages about 200 burials and 1,000 individual pet cremations a year. The facility also provides group cremations for some animals sent by veterinary clinics.

Costs range from $70 for an individual pet cremation (not including the urn) to about $1,000 for the average pet burial. Add a large monument, however, and the funeral costs can push $3,000.

The cemetery has been Shea's life for as long as she can remember.

So why sell it?

"Eminent domain," Shea sighed. "That's a real big threat when they pull that out of their back pocket. You just don't have the privilege of saying no."

* * *

The county has tried for years to expand the 39.8-acre Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex on Collier Parkway. With Little League, softball, football and soccer all vying for space, there aren't enough fields to go around. And the parking, parents say, is a nightmare.

The county first approached the neighbors a few years ago with buyout offers so it could expand the park. But Shea said the county's first offering price "was a joke." She and the other neighbors refused.

After a group of parents pressed the county last fall to resume negotiations, the county came back with a new offer. Shea and her neighbors sensed a buyout was inevitable, as the county can use eminent domain powers to forcibly buy private property for a public use.

The 11 property owners agreed to use the same Riverview attorney, Bill Haapa, to negotiate the $2.49-million sale approved by the County Commission Oct. 21.

Shea's property, including her home and the unused cemetery grounds, went for $412,500, plus $44,309 in closing costs and attorney's fees. She got nothing for the stretch of land where the animals are buried, she said, because that land is already "used."

The sale will double the size of the park, although it will uproot a half-dozen homeowners like Shea. Still, Shea said she'd rather see the land become a park, filled with laughing children, than another sprawling housing development.

Early conceptual drawings show two Little League fields, two softball fields, two soccer practice fields, and separate practice and game fields for football. The plans also call for more parking areas, a fitness trail, a playground and three new basketball courts. A skateboard park would go where the current basketball courts are.

"This is strictly conceptual at this point, because once the design process starts, unfortunately we're sometimes surprised by the amount of water retention that the Southwest Florida Water Management District makes us put in," said Jim Slaughter, the county's parks and recreation director.

"It's possible we won't be able to do all of this," he said of the $3-million park expansion plan. "It's our wish list."

* * *

Two weeks ago, Shea started telling the veterinarians' offices that she won't be running the pet cemetery after January.

"I was almost in tears when I heard the news," said Debbie Genereux, a certified veterinarian technician at the Kyser Animal Clinic in Tampa.

"It seems like such a shame and such a loss, because they've been serving this area for so long, so beautifully and so wonderfully," Genereux added.

Brenda Flood Harvey, 45, of New Tampa is also saddened by the news. Her German shepherd mix, Seasha, is buried at Oakcrest Pet Cemetery. She bought the neighboring plot for Sunny, the Yorkie she has now.

"I can come out and see my pet, look at the lake, be peaceful and know she's at peace," Harvey said.

She believes the county should honor her plans to bury her other dog here.

Shea expects more tears as pet owners learn of the cemetery's fate through news accounts. And she has her own tears to shed.

For her, the buyout means starting over - finding a new home, finding a new job, leaving her life's work behind - at age 53.

"It leaves me with a lot of sadness," Shea said. "It's been a really trying year. I have no idea where I'm going to move, or what I'm going to do with myself. It's going to be a very strange step in my life."

- Bridget Hall Grumet covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is bhall@sptimes.com

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