Santa Maria Cemetery District officials have a lot of responsibilities. Beyond caring for its multi-acre properties and helping loved ones through difficult times, they are responsible for the eternal rest of many Santa Maria Valley residents.

Lee Diaz, chairman of the Santa Maria Cemetery District Board of Trustees, takes those responsibilities very seriously.

“I want to be a part of the community, and I think the cemetery district is an important part of the community. It’s about service to me,” Diaz said. “It is a real privilege to be selected to be a part of this.”

Each member of the five-trustee panel is selected and appointed by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. The cemetery district is funded through county property tax funds and the sale of cemetery plots.

The Cemetery District is large, according to cemetery officials, taking up most of northern Santa Barbara County.

“It takes in all of the city and Orcutt,” Diaz explained. "The only thing we don’t do is Guadalupe and Los Alamos. It’s a pretty big district."

The cemetery grounds, on South College Drive in Santa Maria, are pretty big, too.

“We have five developed acres, 17 undeveloped, which we lease to a farmer,” said Becky Badenell, manager of the Cemetery District.

The Santa Maria district also maintains the historic Pine Grove Cemetery, which is no longer in use, in Orcutt.

Diaz was recently recognized for his dedication to the district and its responsibilities.

As a special government area in California, Santa Maria Cemetery District officials are included in annual conferences and training sessions. Diaz saw the value of these sessions and decided to sign up.

Four years later and after taking some additional training sessions on his own, Diaz recently completed training in special district governance.

For his work, he was given the Special District Leadership Foundation Award.

Diaz serves with Mark Evans, Bob Engel, Cole Lucas and John Tunnell.

Enos Ranch project will change Santa Maria Cemetery

Like many people in Santa Maria, cemetery district officials have been watching progress of the planned Enos Ranch project.

The mixed-use development, when completed, will be the home for a new Costco, a car dealership and restaurants and will be located directly across the street from the cemetery.

“The biggest thing right now is that big development,” Diaz said. “Hopefully, there won’t be too much disruption to our services.”

Diaz said because of the project, city leaders plan to widen College Drive. In order to do that, the cemetery has to give up some of its road frontage.

In exchange for that road frontage, Diaz said, the city will build a new entrance at the new cemetery south of the main cemetery.

“It will be real nice when it gets done,” Diaz said.

What won’t be nice for the cemetery, once construction of the Enos Ranch project begins, is that gophers and other pests may be chased into the cemetery.

Gophers, gangs and other challenges

To work for and manage a cemetery district, you have to stay on your toes.

“One of the biggest problems we are having right now is with gophers," Diaz said. "All of a sudden, we started seeing gopher holes everywhere.

"You don’t want that, especially next to the monuments. People want to come visit their loved ones, and they don’t want to see a mound of dirt covering it up.

The district recently purchased six owl houses, hoping that inviting the nocturnal birds of prey to live at the cemetery will be a natural way to deal with the gopher problem.

Diaz said they got the idea from another district's trustee, who said wineries use the bird houses to control their pest problems.

“It’s a safety hazard,” Badenell said of the gopher problem.

The cemetery also has an employee on constant watch for gophers and their holes so the damage they cause can be quickly repaired and traps can be set.

“It is quite a job to do,” said Diaz. "All the work we do helping the public, you never know what’s going to happen every day."

Another situation Santa Maria Cemetery District officials need to be ready for is when a gang member dies and wants to be buried in the cemetery.

“We aren’t the only ones. It happens all over California,” said Diaz.

Adding to the already high emotions involved in funerals, a gang member burial could create a dangerous situation.

“Are there going to be rival gangs here?” Diaz asked, referring to concerns about gang member burials.

Every so often, the Santa Maria Cemetery District has to deal with some odd requests.

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A few years ago, a member of a motorcycle gang wanted to be buried with his motorcycle. Since cemetery districts are governed by health and safety statutes, the request was denied.

Badenell said any reports that the motorcycle burial did happen are “just a rumor.”

“There are strange situations,” Diaz said. "A lot of people want to have parties here."

He added they’ve also been asked to host weddings at the cemetery. For a lot of other districts, it’s more common because they have chapels at their cemeteries.

Cemetery management takes a lot of care and respect

“We try to make people feel comfortable when they come here, especially with everything they are dealing with,” Badenell said. "It can be tough."

A large part of making families feel comfortable is how the district maintains its grounds.

“There are a lot of things we do,” said Diaz. "We have to keep these grounds looking good. We have a lot of respect for the people that are buried here. It’s our job to keep it up to date and have the money to do it."

He said the cemetery’s staff works very hard to maintain the property.

“I will give a lot of credit to our crew,” he added. "They do a lot of work. They take pride in the cemetery and try to make it look nice."

Badenell agreed.

“The crew we have is very respectful," she said. "When I first started working here, a hearse came in while the crew was working. When they saw it, they stopped, took off their hats and bowed their heads until the hearse went by.

"I was touched by that; it gave me chills,” Badenell said.

Through the last few years of drought, the cemetery has worked to look nice and keep its grass green.

Badenell said the memorial park has been diligent in its water conservation efforts to meet state conservation requirements and to keep the property green.

Instead of the timed sprinklers it used in the past, the cemetery’s crew manually turns the water on and off when they think the grass needs a drink.

The cemetery district currently requires burials to have ground-level plaque monuments, instead of the larger freestanding tombstones and memorials.

That change was, in large part, because of water management. Water from sprinklers isn’t stopped by large monuments and can make it to where it is needed.

For more information about the cemetery or its district, call 925-4595 or visit www.santamariacemetery.com.

Logan B. Anderson covers city government in Santa Maria for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @LoganBAnderson.

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City Government Reporter