A City Council that just a few years ago was reluctant to spend $1 to acquire the historic, but run-down cemetery on Sunol Boulevard voted unanimously Tueday night to spend $4.5 million to upgrade and expand what is now called Pleasanton Pioneer Cemetery.
Much of the costs, if not all, could be covered by revenues generated from the sale of new burial plots, which could mean the cemetery will have no financial impact on the city's General Fund budget and could even produce additional revenue from the sale of new gravesites.
A packed City Council chamber cheered when the vote was announced with veterans and long-time cemetery restoration supporters finally seeing their years of efforts succeed to make the historic site a part of the city's long-range master plan.
Initially, and what the council voted to authorize Tuesday night, the city will spend $170,000 on professional services needed to plan the overall cemetery restoration project. That will include grave mapping to determine just how many are buried at Pioneer (no one really knows), soil testing to determine where new gravesites could be added, and acquisition of a data base system to help in gravesite plotting and sales.
Kathleen Yurchak, assistant director of Operations Services, said a council-appointed Pioneer Cemetery Master Plan Committee worked through much of the year with consulting firm PGAdesign, Inc. to develop the comprehensive plan that was approved Tuesday night.
A key part of the committee's work, which was approved earlier by the city's Parks and Recreation Commission, was to show that the cemetery can be restored, beautified and expanded at eventually no cost to the city government.
Yurchak said potential revenue from the sale of burial plots could top $36 million from the sale of 7,237 plots for cremains and 778 additional plots for full casket burials.
Although the business plan brought support, and even welcome surprise from the council, Councilwoman Karla Brown said she is concerned about the city becoming increasingly involved in owning and operating a cemetery. Eventually, she said, the city should try to find a cemetery developer to acquire Pioneer and take it off the local government's books.
Her views are not unlike those expressed in September 2006 when members of the City council at the time reluctantly agreed to take ownership of Pleasanton Memorial Gardens cemetery from the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF), a fraternal organization whose diminishing membership made it financially unable to continue owning and maintaining the cemetery.
Pleasanton Gardens was first established in 1850 as a non-endowment cemetery. The IOOF purchased it in 1882. Many of Pleasanton's founding pioneers are buried there, including the Kottinger and Neal families, as well as 400 military veterans.
Part of the recommended improvements to the cemetery, which was renamed "Pioneer" when the city acquired it, include a veterans' memorial structure, an information kiosk, and a computer terminal that can provide visitors with information about the cemetery and about those who have been laid to rest there.
Gary and Nancy Harrington, who have donated public art to Pleasanton, have pledged $40,000 in matching funds toward the construction of a veterans' memorial.
With Tuesday's approval, and at Mayor Jerry Thorne's urging, Yurchak and cemetery consultants will move forward quickly to develop a restoration and expansion action plan for the council's approval. That will allow local veterans organizations and the Harringtons to proceed with fundraising efforts to build the memorial and related projects.
"The frustration I have is that we need something to happen," said former Mayor Frank Brandes at Tuesday's council meeting. "There are various ways to fund this project, but we need a timeline so people know when it will happen."
Businessman Frank Capilla agreed.
"Let's make sure this plan doesn't get buried in bureaucracy" he quipped. "I've been in construction for 42 years and I'm impressed by the cemetery construction budget. There's more than enough money in income to pay for all the planned improvements."
Larry Annis, who led the Rotary Club of Pleasanton on cemetery cleanup projects for several years, praised the council's action.
"My parents moved here in 1948," he said. "I've raised my sons here. This is my home. When I die, I want to be buried here, and I want (Pioneer Cemetery) to be the most beautiful park in town."
Veteran and VFW member Doug Miller said Pleasanton veterans' organizations are ready to start fundraising for a memorial at Pioneer.
"We also want an information kiosk here as part of the improvements," he said. "These are popular in many cemeteries so that you can find who's buried where and even information about them. This also would be of interest to school children and others doing research on Pleasanton."