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Cemetery hopes water agreement brings in funds

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The new owners of Memory Lawn Memorial Cemetery have applied for a water lease agreement to raise money for improvements at the East 19th Street site. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Owner says money would fund site improvements

The partners who own Memory Lawn Memorial Cemetery on East 19th Street have received preliminary approval for a water lease agreement that will allow them to sell some water every year until at least 2023, with the partnership indicating that the majority of money raised will be used to improve the cemetery grounds.

“The reason we are doing so is to generate funds to enable us to move forward more quickly with the renovation of the cemetery,” said Henry Mayhew, a managing partner of Memory Lawn Memorial Cemetery and president of Memory Lawn Cemetery Improvement Fund LLC.

Mayhew emphasized that the transaction is not the sale of water rights. Water rights will remain with the cemetery property. He also said the agreement will allow the group to sell some water to people who intend to use it for oil or gas drilling.

The application for the water diversion under the Water-Use Lease Act by Memory Lawn Cemetery Improvement Fund LLC of Irvine, California, was filed Aug. 2 with the District II Office of the State Engineer in Roswell.

A legal notice period is due to begin within the next few days and last for about three weeks. That allows for public comment or written protests or objections to be filed before a final decision on a permit is made.

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“The (cemetery) owner does have preliminary authorization to use the water,” said Kristina M. Eckhart, acting public information officer with the Office of the State Engineer.

The amount to be sold would be up to 38.67 acre-feet a year, or about 12.6 million gallons. The remainder of the property’s water, about 16.527 acre-feet a year, or about 5.4 million gallons, would be used for irrigation of the 18.4 acres of property.

The application explicitly states that “net proceeds of the sales will be used to substantially improve the cemetery.”

“When we took ownership of MLMC, we did so in good faith and understood our obligation to restore it to an excellent condition that honors all of those interred there, as well as their families and loved ones who come to visit,” Mayhew said, who described several actions already taken at the site. “It will take over $200,000 more to finish our renovation.”

Mayhew and his partners took control of the cemetery in March 2018. An Irvine, California, entrepreneur, Mayhew was born in Roswell, has a father who attended New Mexico Military Institute and has family members buried in the cemetery.

The cemetery had been in court receivership since 2011 as a result of lawsuits against the former owner, Allan J. Drake, who has since died. Located just east of the city limits, the cemetery was formed in 1953 and has been owned by several different entities. But it is unendowed and had been poorly maintained.

Mayhew and his partners provided Judge Freddie Romero of the New Mexico 5th Judicial District with a plan to revitalize the cemetery. Those plans included forming a nonprofit to run the cemetery, which continues to perform burial services, and creating for-profit initiatives to generate income using cemetery property or assets.

Part of the for-profit plan was to sell bottled water, but Mayhew said that he and his investors found out after they paid for the water pump repair that the water is far too brackish and that it would cost too much to treat the water to make it suitable for drinking.

They have sold some of the non-cemetery acreage to raise some money, and Mayhew said he has invested about $26,000 of his own money. Those funds, Mayhew said, have been used to repair the water pump, clean up gravesites, hire an employee, rent office space, repair and paint stonework, and create a database of records related to deeds and information on the 2,000 or so people buried there.

Planned future improvements include installation of a new flagpole, the surveying of the property with a global positioning system to locate all the graves, the repositioning of headstones to create walkable pathways, the pouring of concrete pillows for about 900 headstones to keep them from sinking, the creating of gravel walkways, the paving entry roads and the landscaping and beautifying of the property.

Mayhew also has said that he and his partners eventually want to create an on-site map and develop an online searchable database so that people can locate gravesites.

Talk some months ago about a possible sale of water rights caused controversy among some social media users.

“I don’t have a problem with the leasing of the water rights, that’s fine,” said Lisa K. Shipman, who helps run a Facebook page for people interested in the cemetery. The page has about 400 members. “It’s the selling of water rights that I have a problem with.”

According to Eckhart, a permit typically takes six to eight months to process.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.