Diocese pulls application for headstones in Trumbull cemetery

TRUMBULL — A controversial plan to place headstones in a Trumbull cemetery ended this week with a single sentence from Tony Silber, the deputy chairman of the town’s Planning & Zoning Commission.

“This is going to be a shorter meeting than you might have anticipated,” Silber said in opening the 16-minute business portion of the meeting on Wednesday. “The 1056 Daniels Farm Road application, Bridgeport Catholic Diocese Corporation, requesting a modification of zoning approval for the cemetery — that has been withdrawn.”

Attorney Ray Rizio, of Russo & Rizio, who represented the diocese, said the neighborhood opposition to a proposal to allow upright headstones in Gate of Heaven Cemetery had taken the diocese by surprise. Since its opening in 1959, Gate of Heaven has been restricted to flat grave markers under a special permit that the diocese had requested be modified in December 2020.

“I think we all were (caught off guard) by the outrage from the neighbors,” Rizio said. “We thought four-foot high headstones that you couldn’t see from the road shouldn’t have caused any change to the neighborhood.”

The diocese, having withdrawn the application, would now take some time to reassess its future plans for the property, Rizio said.

Commissioners in their preliminary deliberations had discussed what P&Z member Tony Chory had described as the “prairie-like” nature of Gate of Heaven, with the flat markers giving the cemetery an open, park-like feel.

“It has formed its own unique character as being like an open prairie,” Chory said at the commission’s December meeting. “There’s an aesthetic that makes it unique. To just randomly start changing the whole prairie-like view, to me, would be hurtful to somebody that’s not used to that.”

Rizio had argued that the restriction on upright headstones put Gate of Heaven at a competitive disadvantage with other cemeteries.

“People are very particular. I do trusts and estates, and people put what they want in their will or they buy cemetery plots,” he said. “Many people, they want a headstone, a place where they can honor their parent or loved one, and they don’t have that option. We lost a number of people that would like to be buried in Gate of Heaven, but because they wanted a headstone, they went to other cemeteries.”

Rizio pointed out that the cemetery also includes a 25-foot high mausoleum which opened about 20 years ago. Demand for entombment in the mausoleum has been sufficient that a second, 7,500-square-foot mausoleum with space for 690 crypts and 440 niches for urns, is scheduled for an October opening.

“The mausoleum is 25 feet high, and you can just barely see the roof from Daniels Farm Road,” he said.

Before withdrawing the application, Rizio had told the commission that the diocese was willing to make accommodations, including maintaining existing sections of the cemetery as they are and allowing headstones only in new sections.

“We took into account maintaining the prairie-like view, screening the neighbors so they don’t have to see headstones, and placing the upright headstones in designated areas — not having a mishmosh,” he said. “We can modify it for people that thought they were going into a headstone-less cemetery.”

Gate of Heaven currently has about 25,000 people buried there.

Although the commission and Rizio had focused on the aesthetics from the perspective of people whose loved ones are buried there, the bulk of the opposition to the plan had come from the neighborhood. A handful of residents spoke out against the plan at the commission’s Jan. 20 meeting, and Chairman Fred Garrity said members had received a form letter with 53 signatures.

Concerns raised by the neighbors included increased traffic from more frequent burials, altering scenic views, and potential vandalism concerns resulting from tipped headstone pranks.

But the neighbors’ primary concern was property values, a point Attorney Joel Green brought up at the commission’s Feb. 17 meeting after a group of neighbors hired him to represent their interests. Green argued that the plan to allow upright headstones would fundamentally alter the neighborhood’s character.

“The applicant has not created any basis to justify increasing what has been the status quo and increasing the burden on these homeowners,” Green said. “Residents who bought homes in the area should be able to rely on the conditions of the special permit.”