WOODLAWN CEMETERY — The City Attorney’s Office and attorneys for a local fraternal order are in “sensitive discussions” over the fate of burial plots at the Woodlawn Cemetery, Mortuary and Mausoleum that the order says were taken by City Hall and then improperly sold to the public, said an attorney on the case.
The Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks in Santa Monica filed a complaint last April saying that most of the roughly 500 spaces in a plot deeded to the Elks 100 years ago have been co-opted by City Hall for private use.
Deputy City Attorney Heidi Von Tongeln, however, issued a detailed response last month stating that the order has no right to the disputed graves — commonly called Block 16 — and that any right they may have had expired in 2011.
That makes any claim of a right to burial in those spaces null and void, Von Tongeln wrote.
Though City Hall has full ownership of the cemetery, it has not allowed non-Elks to be buried in what’s known as the Elks Family Rest, another set of graves that take up a portion of what’s called Block 8, according to court documents.
John Peterson, the attorney representing the Elks, said that although he and his clients are in talks over the plots, he “absolutely disagrees” with City Hall’s position on his clients’ rights to the site.
“I am still standing on the allegations that we set forward in the complaint,” Peterson said.
At least 16 non-Elks had been buried in Block 16, an area on the northeast corner of Woodlawn that was deeded to the Elks in 1912, attorneys for the Elks held at the time the complaint was filed.
Furthermore, the doors to the columbarium — a place to store urns — was allegedly padlocked shut.
City Attorney Marsha Moutrie wrote a letter to the Elks in November 2009 stating that City Hall owned all of Block 16 under a grant deed signed in 1921, but that the municipality wanted to find an “amicable resolution” on the number of graves to be reserved for Elks members.
She proposed that the Elks would keep their Elks Memorial structure on Block 16 as a general monument site and reserve all of the 95 available cremation niches remaining in that structure — the columbarium — for Elks members.
The Elks would also get 50 graves within Block 16 for their members.
“Unless we hear from you otherwise within 30 days from the date of this letter, we will assume that our proposal is sufficient to meet the needs of the current membership. And, we will assume that the dispute has been amicably resolved,” Moutrie wrote.
City Hall claims that officials never heard back from the Elks until March 12, 2010, when an attorney for the Elks, Stephen Glassman, asked City Hall to hold off on any action on the site until he’d had a chance to look over the documents.
That also never happened, according to court documents.
As of April 2011, City Hall began selling spaces in Block 16.
The Elks waited to file suit, hoping that the situation would be resolved until what Peterson described in 2012 as “provocative actions” on the part of City Hall.
The first was the alleged padlocking of the doors of the columbarium, which shut the space to the Elks and everyone else.
The second was the discovery that City Hall had already moved forward with their plans to use the sites, and that 16 had been sold to people without approval of the Elks.
That action “interrupted the exclusive nature of said area, and cause loss and damage to all grave sites in said area,” according to the complaint.
In the eyes of City Hall, if the Elks had a right to burial in Block 16, it ended 90 years after they delivered the Grant Deed on April 11, 1921. When that date passed, so did any purported right to the property.
The City Attorney’s Office and Peterson have until June 30 to finish mediation, according to court documents.