Neighbors concerned headstones at Trumbull cemetery will lead to 'illegal activity'

TRUMBULL — Drug dealing, picket fences and urbanization were some issues the Planning and Zoning Commission grappled with during its hearing this week into allowing upright headstones at Gate of Heaven Cemetery.

The cemetery has only had flat grave markers since its 1959 founding.

Though the two-hour meeting ultimately ended without a vote on the matter, attorney Ray Rizio described the modifications the diocese planned to the cemetery. The updated proposal was based on feedback he received from the commission at its Dec. 16 meeting.

“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.

The planned headstones would be placed in two sections, totaling about 3.5 acres, to the left and right of the entrance road before it splits into the circular ring that surrounds the current burial areas. The headstones would be separated from the existing areas by the road, and shielded from view from the entrance road by a 4-foot white picket fence, according to the plan.

“We picked 4 feet because we agree to limit the uprights to no more than 4 feet high,” Rizio said. “We’re not looking to put little mausoleums there.”

The areas with the upright headstones would be up to 30 feet below the grade of Daniels Farm Road and not visible from the road, he said. The areas of the cemetery currently open for only flat grave markers would also remain free of headstones, Rizio said.

Gate of Heaven currently has about 25,000 people buried there, and conducts about 300 burials each year. Rizio estimated that allowing upright headstones would increase the number of burials by 50 to 100 annually.

“At least once or twice a week, we’ve lost people because they couldn’t have headstones,” he said. “Every other cemetery (in Trumbull) has headstones. It’s buffered and sheltered, and there’s demand for it in town.”

In their comments, the commission agreed the effect on the area would be minimal, with several commissioners questioning the need for a fence inside the cemetery to segregate the areas where headstones are allowed.

“You’re not going to see it from Daniels Farm Road,” Commissioner David Preusch said. “And the people driving into the cemetery are the ones that want the stones.”

Commissioner Tony D’Aquila agreed, saying the diocese “has made some reasonable compromises.”

Commissioner Anthony Chory commented a white fence would detract from Gate of Heaven’s natural beauty, while Tony Silber suggested more natural buffering or none at all.

“Why are we arguing that they’re unattractive?” he said. “To say that cemeteries with monuments are somehow unattractive to a community, that’s an idea that does not connect.”

Silber added he did not believe there would be an impact to the community.

“I just don’t see a downside to allowing this,” he said.

But if commission members didn’t see a downside, Gate of Heaven’s neighbors saw plenty. Chairman Fred Garrity said the commission had received dozens of letters opposing headstones, including a form letter that had 53 signatures.

A handful of residents also spoke up during the public comment segment of the meeting. Marshall Marcus, who said he has experience in managing cemeteries, called the reasoning for allowing headstones disingenuous, and stated that eliminating the headstone restriction would increase crime.

“One of the biggest problems is turning over gravestones,” he said. “It’s a problem.”

Headstones also increase a cemetery’s maintenance costs and are subject to vandalism and defacement, he said, and become “a terrible hiding place for drug deals and other illegal activity.”

Luciano Sclafani, who bought his house on an adjoining street 28 years ago, said he made his homebuying decision based on his real estate agent’s assurance that there would never be upright monuments.

“Why change these restrictions now?” he asked. “The cemetery continues to expand. Almost every Saturday we can see cars in procession coming up Daniels Farm Road. We can hear taps, 21-gun salutes, sometimes bagpipes. This demonstrates the cemetery is not suffering any hardship.”

Sclafani urged the commission not to let the desires of some people for headstones trump the thousands of people who chose Gate of Heaven because of the restrictions to flat markers.

“Please remember the hundreds of taxpayers who built or purchased homes in the area, and not make this neighborhood evolve into a city or an urban field,” he said.

Fellow neighborhood resident Jacqueline Coe, whose Wildflower Lane home has a direct view of the cemetery’s interior, rejected the diocese’s plan of planting evergreens along the property line to shield the stones from her vline of sight.

“The beauty of Gate of Heaven is this prairie-like view,” she said. “I don’t want to suddenly have that view blocked.”

Coe also took issue with Garrity’s comments at the December meeting that the commission was weighing people’s final resting place “for all eternity” against the wishes of neighbors who would come and go.

“It may sound heartless, but the families of people visiting the burial sites, they’re going to move away or they’re going to pass away,” she said. “They’re going to stop visiting but the families who live in the homes are going to continue to be here.”

Andrea Prushko, whose grandparents had sold the land to the diocese, said people choose Gate of Heaven because of its natural beauty. She described the cemetery as a “beautiful, serene, safe park-like setting which fits the surrounding neighborhood.”

Having a cemetery with upright headstones would result in lower property values, she said.

“This changes the park-like view to an ordinary cemetery that one might see in a large city environment like Bridgeport,” she said.

Given a chance to address some of the public comments, Rizio expressed disbelief at some of the arguments being made against the proposal.

“I’ve never heard of cemeteries being great getaway houses,” he said. “There won’t be an influx of drug dealers conducting business behind 4-foot headstones.”

He also disputed the claim that vandalism would be an added issue.

“We’ve had no problem with tipping headstones. Those were probable with the old headstones that are simply set in the ground,” he said. “The Incredible Hulk couldn’t tip these headstones. You need a machine to place the stone on top of the base, which is set in cement.”

Commissioners decided to delay their deliberations in order to have more time to review the proposal.