PRAIRIEVILLE — Granite headstones with the names of Broussard, Van Walkenburg and Pape mark some of the gravesites shaded under the mossy oaks of Oak Lane Memorial Park cemetery off La. 73.
Started in the late 2000s, the cemetery in one of Ascension Parish’s hottest growth areas has run into financial trouble, drawing the scrutiny of its lender, United Community Bank, and the state regulator of cemeteries, the Louisiana Cemetery Board, which claims Oak Lane is flouting a subpoena for its records.
The bank has foreclosed on the cemetery loan, alleging in a lawsuit on July 30 that the operation owes more than $3 million in principal and interest, and is preparing to sell about 28 acres of undeveloped land in a sheriff’s sale Nov. 19.
The land headed to the sale includes the site’s old house framed by arching live oaks, where the cemetery’s administrative office is now located, as well as old barns and now vacant green fields studded with big hay bales visible off La. 73, a former cemetery owner says.
George Bonfanti, the former cemetery owner who is now cemetery manager, said a La. 73 widening project, which has been delayed several times, and other factors have hurt sales at the cemetery. He said the sheriff’s sale does not include about 4 acres of existing graves and presold cemetery plots that already have been dedicated to the state in perpetuity.
“The dedicated property is forever a cemetery,” Bonfanti said Friday.
On May 15, the Louisiana Cemetery Board found Oak Lane had not paid $42,408 into a perpetual care trust fund to keep up gravesites long term, though the cemetery had received payments from customers. Another $33,638 has not been put into a separate trust fund to develop a group of pre-purchased gravesites known as the Giles addition, according to the board’s order.
The board said Oak Lane used the money for other business purposes and, in its May order, barred the group from selling any more “pre-need” gravesites as of Aug. 1. Oak Lane can still sell graves for someone who has died and can bury people who have sites already and have died.
Assistant Attorney General Ryan Seidemann said state law requires that if cemeteries offer perpetual care, they have to pay into the trust funds.
“It really becomes a public protection issue because the public pays into those trust funds with the expectation that cemetery will always be a beautiful facility for relatives and friends to visit so that if you are under-funding it (the trust fund), there is a very good chance there is not going to be enough money for upkeep once you’ve sold out an entire cemetery,” said Seidemann, who is representing the Cemetery Board.
The board, in a lawsuit filed last month in the 23rd Judicial District Court, accused Oak Lane of selling its operations to Baton Rouge-based National Information Services Inc. as part of a scheme to evade the board’s May order. As part of the $3 million sale, Bonfanti and NIS signed a separate agreement allowing him to continue running the cemetery.
The Cemetery Board filed a subpoena for Oak Lane’s records but says in the lawsuit that Bonfanti has not turned them over. The board will ask at a hearing 9 a.m. Monday before Judge Ralph Tureau in Gonzales that Bonfanti be held in contempt.
Bonfanti maintains the sale and related management agreement were not about anything the board is alleging involving the cemetery. He said the NIS asked him to keep running the cemetery because its owners do not have experience running a cemetery.
NIS officials did not return calls for comment this past week.
Bonfanti’s bank troubles also have spilled over into one owner of preneed lots.
Karen Sue Giles, on Oct. 15, sued Oak Lane and NIS for damages over a 0.07-acre addition to her family’s existing burial garden that, she claims, was not dedicated as a burial site and has been caught up in the sheriff’s sale.
Giles alleges she paid Bonfanti $158,750 in May 2013 for the addition to build foundations, monuments and to do other improvements, as well as for perpetual care for the addition.
Her deceased husband is buried in the adjacent, original burial site that has been dedicated.
Bonfanti said he believed he had reached agreements with United Community Bank to start paying back his loan and to dedicate the Giles addition but claimed the bank kept going back on the deal. Representatives of UCB, citing the pending litigation, declined comment on Friday.
Bonfanti said he is remaining at the cemetery to deal with his customers who have burial plots and will continue to work for customers in dedicated plots once the sheriff’s sale is completed.
Bonfanti said he also has started paying into the trust funds since the board’s May order.
Robert Ryland Percy III, an attorney for Giles, said his client will not seek to stop the sheriff’s sale.
“In this particular case, both the bank and Mrs. Giles are victims, and we’re just going to do what we can to try to protect our client’s interest,” she said.
Part of her suit seeks to have the site declared as dedicated cemetery property.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.