By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — First, the unmowed grass was a problem.
Now ATVs buzzing through the area are causing complaints.
The group in charge of Hilldale Cemetery came under fire from the City Council this year, after neighbors complained the grass wasn’t being mowed and the place looked uncared for. Cemetery officials said their lawn-mowing equipment failed, and they have been struggling to raise money for new equipment.
But with help from volunteers, the trustees managed to get most of the grass cut.
Now they are being asked to secure a sand pit area behind the cemetery where ATVs have been entering from railroad tracks in that area.
Thomas Spitalere, president of the cemetery’s Board of Trustees, which operates the nonprofit graveyard, said he believes the ATVs come down from Maine and New Hampshire and enter the cemetery to meet with local people, possibly to make drug deals.
At a recent City Council meeting, Councilor Thomas Sullivan pointed out concerns about an exposed sand pit in the back of the cemetery. Sullivan said there is no fence or obstacle to prevent ATVs from getting into the cemetery from the railroad tracks. He told Spitalere the area needs to be made secure.
“That’s got to be part of the solution in 2014,” Sullivan said. “If you need our help in figuring out who owns it and how to get a hold of them and make them do something in order to make that area safer and more secure, we can do that.”
Spitalere said the sand pit is a large area at the back of the cemetery. Much of it is on a slope that stretches down to railroad tracks used by freight trains and Amtrak’s Downeaster, he said.
Spitalere told councilors he’s seen pickup trucks driving through the adjacent City Cemetery to meet up with ATVs that enter by travelling along the railroad tracks. He said his group has fencing that can be installed once the boundary line between the railroad property and Hilldale Cemetery is determined.
“The bottom line is that area needs to be secured,” Sullivan said.
Spitalere told councilors that he keeps the cemetery’s main gate on Hilldale Avenue locked most of the time to prevent trespassing.
He said every time he leaves the gate unlocked, he finds gravestones toppled over, and that many of them are very heavy and difficult to upright.
“When we have the gate locked, we don’t have this issue,” he said.
At the Oct. 22 City Council meeting, Spitalere told councilors his board is making progress in maintaining the cemetery, but struggles to raise money to buy new equipment. He said his board was left with very little money when it assumed control of the cemetery in 2009.
Spitalere said the board formerly held monthly yard sales, but that the city now limits how many sales can be held each year. He said his board also raises money by hosting paranormal investigations in the cemetery — ghost hunts which people pay to attend.
Spitalere said his board ran into other financial difficulties when a neighbor complained the board was filling in a wetland area. Spitalere said the fill is being used to expand the cemetery, in an area known as the “central lawn” just inside the main gate.
He said the city’s Conservation Commission determined the area to be “isolated vegetative wetlands” and that whatever money was set aside to buy equipment was instead used by cemetery trustees to pay consulting fees to experts who examined the land.
Recently, various groups of volunteers have come forward to help maintain the cemetery, Spitalere said, including members of Ocasio’s True Martial Arts academy. He told councilors at a previous meeting that the local landscaping company Chris’ Property Maintenance volunteered to cut grass at the burial ground. Another volunteer, Steve Allen of Allen Excavation, has been fixing damaged and toppled gravestones and has helping with the cemetery expansion, Spitalere said.
Spitalere described Hilldale Cemetery as “20 acres of rolling hills” that were left after the glaciers receded during the last ice age.
He said the grass was recently mowed in various areas, included along the front facing Hilldale Avenue, along the cemetery’s roads, an area known as Tenney’s Hill and Soldier’s Hill, which is near the back of the cemetery.
Sullivan said he took a tour of the cemetery with Spitalere several weeks prior to the Oct. 22 council meeting and found it to be in “pretty sad shape.” Sullivan said he has since revisited the area and found things had improved.
“I can see parts of the cemetery are being cut and cared for, and that’s a good thing,” Sullivan said.
But, Sullivan told Spitalere that more needs to be done.
Council President Robert Scatamacchia asked Spitalere what he was doing to promote the cemetery and if he was selling grave plots.
Spitalere said he doesn’t have any to sell at this time. He said that before his group took control, some plots were sold illegally after being bought previously by families who erected stones, but had no one buried there yet.
“If you have a stone in the cemetery and you haven’t used it in 20 or 30 or 40 years, the old board sold your plot off,” Spitalere said. “The family name will still be on that stone, but you might have Mrs. Whoever or Mr. Whoever buried with you.”
Spitalere said there is available space in the central lawn area, which has been filled in, but that he’s waiting for an environmental consultant to meet with the city’s Conservation Department before work can continue.
Scatamacchia, who is a funeral director, said Hilldale Cemetery has been poorly maintained for as long as he can remember. He said that even before Spitalere’s group took control, it was difficult to locate burial plots because of the overgrowth there.
“The bottom line is the city can provide you with all the help in the world, but until you start selling graves and building up that trust fund again, we’re going to be discussing this in another year,” Scatamacchia said to Spitalere.
Spitalere said he would come up with a plan the council can believe in.