Better Call Behnken: Trustee of Dover land containing cemetery speaks on selling it

DOVER, Fla. (WFLA) – Evelyn Crocker saw our 8 On Your Side report about The Worth Cemetery and years of emotions came rushing back. The cemetery, once in her family, is for sale as part of a home site in the Memory Lane subdivision in Dover.

Crocker, 81, grew up helping her family care for the cemetery, where she said at least 21 ancestors were laid to rest.

Among those in graves are her uncle, aunt and brother, all with the last name Lewis.

There’s history here, with graves dating back to 1888. Confederate soldiers and a veteran of World War I and II are buried in this cemetery.

“It’s bad,” Crocker said. “Bad tragedy.”

The cemetery is neglected. Weeds cover graves and headstones are missing. The cemetery is in the back of the larger lot and can’t be seen from the street. A potential buyer walked the property, stumbled across the graves and called 8 On Your Side.

Historic preservationists saw our news report and came forward to say they’ve been fighting to save Worth Cemetery for years.

“It’s just disrespectful,” said Shelby Bender, of the East Hillsborough Historical Society. “Some of the graves weren’t marked with headstones, they were just marked with shells.”

Bender tells 8 On Your Side that fights over this cemetery date back to at least 1979, when a preservationist fought for a cleanup. At the time, a Tampa realtor had bought 18 acres surrounding the cemetery, then got a court judgement to place the cemetery land on the county tax rolls. Nothing happened there, according to published reports, until the 1990s when a small subdivision was built.

It is appropriately named Memory Lane. Every lot has a nice home except one lot, which includes the cemetery.

David Preast is the trustee tasked with selling the land. He feels the controversy is unfair. He lived in the house next door since 2001 and is currently selling that home.

He said his mother bought the lot with the cemetery years ago and planned to build a home there. When she died before the plans came to fruition, she passed the land down to Preast’s sister. He is the trustee.

Preast said there may be enough land around the cemetery to accommodate a home. Or, he said, the land could be used for something else.

“It’s a beautiful piece of property here,” Preast said. “You could have picnics. It would be a great place for a park.”

There is controversy about who should be caring for the cemetery. For years, Preast mowed the land around the cemetery, believing it is the county’s responsibility to maintain it.

“When you’re told by the county that it’s the county’s responsibility, there’s a tendency to say, ‘well, it’s not my responsibility,'” Preast said.

County officials tell 8 On Your Side that it actually is Preast’s responsibility. However, Warren Weathers, of the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s Office, said the county may be willing to maintain the cemetery if that land is deeded over to the county.

Preast said that is something he is willing to consider.

“I want the land maintained,” Preast said. “The family is welcomed to come here.”

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