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Could Adams County's Oak Lawn cemetery go up for auction?

Written by Dustin B. Levy/Hanover Evening Sun | Aug 15, 2016 11:19 AM
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A member of the Adams County Honor Guard walks past a row of grave markers Thursday Aug. 11, 2016 before a ceremony replacing the old U.S service flags with new ones.

(Gettysburg) -- Five poles stood tall and slightly askew on the veterans memorial at Oak Lawn Memorial Gardens in Cumberland Township.

About a dozen members of the Adams County Allied Veterans' Honor Guard arrived Thursday to hoist new flags honoring falling servicemen and replace the ones discovered torn and tattered earlier in the year.

The Oak Lawn property came under scrutiny in March after some families of loved ones buried there were dismayed by the conditions. The cemetery, with crooked headstones and muddy tire tracks, had many concerned about future burials -- for themselves and relatives.

The owner, Ramesh Rao, is required to pay about $33,000 in taxes from 2011 to 2014 before the property is auctioned to the public at 9 a.m. on Sept. 30, according to Adams County Director of Tax Services Daryl Crum. The back taxes on the property total around $37,000 from 2011 to present.

The site is now listed at an auction price of about $49,000 on the county's annual list of properties that are at least two years behind in real estate taxes.

Anybody except the property owner and people with delinquent taxes or utility payments that have been overdue for more than a year is eligible to purchase properties at the auction. The list had 340 properties listed as of Thursday.

Around 100 items on the list end up going to auction each year, so about a third is expected to make the sale next month, Crum said. This is because most owners listed pay the taxes owed before their properties are put up for auction.

Shree Ganesh Finance LLC purchased the Oak Lawn property at a sheriff's sale in July 2015 and officially turned it over to Rao in January.

Rao declined to comment on the pending auction Friday and deferred to his lawyer, Steven Williams, who could not be reached.

The former owner, James Delaney, filed for bankruptcy and defaulted on a loan in 2015, which led to him losing ownership of the property. He was arrested in early July for allegedly defrauding customers -- 797 of them and counting, according to Cindy Keeney, the director of Adams County Victims Witness.

Cumberland Township Police charged Delaney with theft and violation of Pennsylvania Burial Ground Law after he allegedly mishandled more than $1 million intended for prepaid funeral arrangements, according to an affidavit filed in July.

Righting 'a screwed-up situation'

"Jim Delaney may have been rotten, but these people right here aren't," Marie Naugle said of the volunteers and veterans attending Thursday's Honor Guard ceremony.

Naugle and her friend Patti Maus have been coming to Oak Lawn "just about every day" to help clean up the grounds where their husbands are buried.

After the new flags, honoring the five branches of the military, were flying high, Naugle and Maus cheered.

"We got our flags," said Maus, whose husband was a veteran.

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Flags fly at Oak Lawn Memorial Gardens after replaced by the Adams County Honor Guard on Aug. 11, 2016.

Oak Lawn Memorial Gardens is home to around 580 veteran grave sites, according to Stan Clark, Adams County director of veterans affairs.

Volunteers like Naugle, Moss and Allen Duncan, an Honor Guard member, have been coming to help mow grass, trim weeds grown around headstones and clean up trash since March.

"We just want to keep it nice for respect for everybody," Moss said.

The hope among the veterans attending the ceremony was that the memorial site would receive consistent maintenance and remain open to the public.

"I think somebody will take it over and run it right," Duncan, an Air Force veteran, said.

Any potential buyer of the Oak Lawn property at the upset sale would be wise to take into account the ongoing rights of lot owners, Adams County Solicitor John Hartzell said.

If Rao does not pay the required price tag and the property goes unsold at the auction, the sale will be continued for a judicial sale with no minimum bids, slated for September 2017, according to Crum. If the property receives no bids then, it will be placed on the Repository for Unsold Properties.

The repository will allow interested buyers to submit written bid offers, which will be reviewed by Tax Services and submitted with recommendations for the county commissioners. If the taxes on the property remain unpaid, the county could become the trustee, according to Commissioner Randy Phiel. In this case, the county could potentially move to create a nonprofit association to take charge of the property going forward.

However, Hartzell pointed out the county has very limited powers with regard to regulation or enforcement of cemetery laws or issues.

"It's a screwed-up situation and probably will remain that way for a while," Clark said.

Following Thursday morning's ceremony, the Honor Guard performed military honors for a deceased veteran, playing "Taps" and doing a gun salute.

As officials try to sort out Oak Lawn's affairs, uncertainty lingers for the people who trusted the site could serve as a suitable final resting place.

This article is part of a partnership between WITF and the Hanover Evening Sun.

 

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