WOODLAWN CEMETERY — A lawsuit between a local fraternal order and City Hall has been laid to rest.
Since last year, the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks in Santa Monica and City Hall have been battling over burial spaces in Woodlawn Cemetery. A settlement was approved by the City Council earlier this week.
In the settlement, the Elks will receive the right to burial for 120 graves for themselves and family members while City Hall will have exclusive rights to 414 graves, which it can sell to the general public, according to city officials.
In total, Block 16 of Woodlawn Cemetery contains a little less than 900 graves. As of April, 2011, 534 grave sites remained available for interment, Jeanette Schachtner, deputy city attorney, said.
“The city is very happy that all parties reached an amicable resolution,” she said. “There were ongoing settlement discussions. At the end the Elks proposed the 120.”
She said City Hall asked the Elks to relinquish some of those graves because the Elks aren’t using them that quickly.
“The lawsuit finally resolved that issue,” she said.
With the option to sell 414 grave sites, Schachtner said City Hall could make a little more than $2.2 million: $4,635 plus a perpetual care cost of $1,158.75 for each grave site.
John Peterson, attorney for the Elks, said “we look forward to having this matter concluded.” Peterson, of Peterson Law Group, said he was reluctant to talk about details.
According to a complaint filed in April of last year by the Elks in Santa Monica, 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. In the lawsuit, the Elks demanded that City Hall compensate them for the loss of the property and loss of revenue from the spaces as well as attorney fees and the cost of the suit.
According to the complaint, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie sent a letter to the Elks on Nov. 25, 2009 informing the club that City Hall intended to claim “unimpeded rights” to all but 50 of the grave sites in Block 16. The niche spaces in the columbarium were also left to the Elks.
The Elks argued that the spaces belong to the lodge, and were deeded as such by R.C. and Frances Gillis on May 28, 1912. That property included more than just Block 16, but over the years, the Elks allowed City Hall to use other pieces of the property.
Although the Elks later transferred the property to City Hall, primarily for ease of upkeep, the action was taken with the understanding that all of the spots encompassed by Block 16 would remain with the lodge. The Elks responded in March 2010 asking City Hall not to take the sites, but a follow-up letter from Deputy City Attorney Ivan Campbell spelled out City Hall’s intentions.
“The city considers Block 16 to be city property and will continue to operate the Cemetery accordingly … ,” Campbell’s letter stated, according to the complaint.
The Elks have operated in Santa Monica since 1904. They began as a group of actors in New York City who played a drinking game called “the cork game.” Players eventually became known as the “Jolly Corks,” and a large drinking society formed with headquarters over a saloon on Delancey Street, according to the Elks national website.
In February 1868, the organization decided to turn its attention to nobler things, and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was formed.