September 16, 2011

Cemetery to leave shadow of Funtown

A deal to move the 17 graves will end an uneasy co-existence that broke down as the park expanded.

By Emma Bouthillette
Staff Writer

SACO - The life went out of Funtown/Splashtown USA last weekend when the popular summer amusement park closed for the off-season. Soon the dead will be gone, too.

click image to enlarge

Bob Phillips, whose grandparents are buried in the cemetery next to Funtown/Splashtown in Saco, said in 2006 that he was shocked by how close the park expansion was to the graves.

2006 Press Herald file

click image to enlarge

Next week, workers will remove the remains from a 150-year-old family burial plot that lies in the shadow of one of the park's seven-story water slides.

The move will resolve a dispute between Funtown and the Phillips family over the proper legal boundary for development next to the 25-foot-square cemetery, believed to contain at least 17 graves.

"The family is very happy that it is being relocated," said Sandra Guay, the attorney who represents the Phillips family and spoke on their behalf Thursday. "Everybody involved is mutually satisfied that this is happening. ... We're hoping to do it with as much grace, dignity and peacefulness that it deserves."

The Dennett, Craig and Pate Funeral Home of Saco is overseeing the transfer of the remains to Laurel Hill Cemetery on Beach Street, Guay said. The process, which is the result of a confidential agreement between the family and the park, could take as long as three days.

Guay would not say who is paying for the relocation and what will happen to the cemetery lot after it is complete.

Ken Cormier, owner of Funtown/Splashtown USA, declined to comment.

The issue came to a head in 2006 when Bob Phillips, a retired postman whose grandparents are buried in the plot, made one of his regular visits to the site and saw the extensive work being done as Funtown added two seven-story water slides.

Phillips, who lives in New Hampshire, did not return several phone calls seeking comment for this story.

In 2006, he said he was shocked by how close the work was to the cemetery. He said a 10-foot-deep trench that passed within 10 feet of the plot violated a state law requiring a 25-foot buffer around any cemetery.

Cormier, Funtown's owner, contended that state law measures the 25-foot construction buffer from the nearest headstone, not the property line.

An assistant attorney general researched the law and found that while Phillips had a valid complaint, there was a flaw in the way the law was written. Ordinarily, a land-use law would be a civil statute, enforced by building inspectors. But the 1991 cemetery law was written as a criminal statute, meaning it must be enforced by the district attorney or police department.

The law was amended in 2007 to allow municipalities to enforce setback requirements. At the time, Cormier said he redesigned the water slides to accommodate the family. The foundations of the large slides are 26.5 feet from the closest tombstone, although other parts -- suspended in the air -- are closer.

Funtown/Splashtown plans another major expansion this year. Work will begin within weeks on six new water slides in the same area as the two large slides that have been at the center of the debate.

City officials agreed to help with the cemetery move after Guay approached them several months ago on behalf of the family, said City Administrator Rick Michaud.

Under Maine law, cities and towns must maintain veterans' graves, and Saco has helped care for the Phillips family cemetery over the years because it contains the burial sites of at least three veterans. For the move, the city will provide an excavator and several public works employees, Michaud said.

"The city, as I see it, has a certain obligation to care for veterans' graves," he said.

Mayor Ron Michaud said he agreed and would not seek reimbursement for the city's assistance.

"It's a very personal family matter," Guay said. "Everybody is just hoping to keep this dignified and low-key."

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:


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