A Red Deer County plan to convert a memorial park into a less formal natural area has spawned an online petition to stop it.
Nearly 2,600 residents have joined the www.change.org petition opposing plans for what will be known as Leva Avenue Natural Area. Many upset family members have voiced their dismay to the county about proposed changes to the memorial park, which had until 2013 been run by Parkland Funeral Homes, just west of Hwy 2 at the south end of Gasoline Alley.
Memorial park visitors have been told by the county to remove any above-ground items by April 15 to allow mowing and maintenance around the trees.
The county issued a statement on Tuesday reassuring that the park “will continue to be enjoyed as a place for memorial and respect.
“Memorial trees planted for loved ones will continue to grow and provide comfort,” says the county, adding a memorial bridge and pathways will remain.
County manager Curtis Herzberg said it is not planning to take out all of the trees or leave it to go back to nature as a “wilderness area” as the online petition suggests.
“There are some things that people leave in that park that can create some issues for maintenance and that’s really what we’re trying to address,” said Herzberg.
While a handful of benches or other memorabilia might not have been a significant issue, dozens of benches have been placed in the park over the years, he said. Once plans for a natural area were finalized, the county sent out letters to 700 families informing them of the maintenance changes.
The park became a county problem after Parkland Funeral Homes — which changed hands in 2010 — decided not to renew a 10-year lease entered into by the previous owners.
“We’re trying to strike a balance,” said Herzberg. “We don’t want to tear everything out necessarily but we want to ensure it can be suitably maintained.”
Herzberg is sympathetic to people’s concerns but the county has been put in the position of maintaining a memorial park that it did not oversee until recently. The county had no part in how the park was marketed over the years to tree buyers or what they were told about its long-term prospects.
The county created the April 15 deadline to give people time to remove benches or anything else of sentimental value. Any memorabilia left behind will be collected and stored so people can pick it up later.
Shelley Steenhart, whose sister, Karen Begg, is remembered with a plaque, stone and a tree at the park, is still not happy with the county’s response.
“They are standing their ground. They are just not budging,” said Steenhart on Wednesday.
“It’s just heartbreaking. To me, it seems like they are desecrating sacred ground.
“I just can’t believe are just not reconsidering with the public outcry.”
Innisfail’s Coralie Adams bought a tree in the fall of 2013 as a memorial to her son Timothy and was notified by Parkland the next spring that their tree was available for planting.
Adams said she was told by a funeral home representative it was working with the county on upkeep for the area, but she was not told that the lease was not renewed.
She was shocked to hear that the mementos and other reminders above ground level are being removed.
“It’s a memorial park and that’s the way it should stay.”
Many of those who purchased memorial trees and markers from Parkland Funeral Homes since the park was set up in 2004 assumed it was a permanent place to honour their loved ones and started to add their own sentimental touches.
A sign went up in 2010 alerting families that any memorabilia could be removed at any time and Parkland reserves the right to turn the park over to the county without notice. It also reminded visitors that the site was not a cemetery and should not contain human remains or ashes.
Herzberg said he’s not sure why the county agreed to a 10-year lease originally, given the possibility the original operator might not keep it going forever. The park rules that were in place do not seem to have been enforced.
“The lack of enforcing of the rules … has created a very high level of maintenance, which has now been dumped on the county.”