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Neighbors upset about new Peñitas cemetery

Neighbors aren’t happy about plans for a new cemetery in Peñitas, but they can’t stop The Lord & I Funeral Home from burying the dead next door.

The Texas Department of Banking approved the cemetery last year, according to state records. Construction started near 11th Street and U.S. 83, taking the city and nearby homeowners by surprise.

City of Penitas logo“I think everybody agrees: It’s unfortunate,” said state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission. “It puts the city in a tough predicament.”

Under state law, the Texas Department of Banking regulates “perpetual care cemeteries” in cities with fewer than 5,000 residents. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 4,700 people lived in Peñitas during 2016.

The Lord and I Cemetery Inc. purchased a nearly 24-acre property behind the AEP Texas substation north of U.S. 83 and west of 11th Street, according to Hidalgo County property records. Workers cleared brush and built a small road, which links the funeral home parking lot on 11th Street to Diamond Avenue.

City Manager Omar Romero said The Lord & I Funeral Home didn’t notify Peñitas about the cemetery or construction on the property.

“And the reason that I didn’t go to the city and ask for permits is the state said that I don’t need to do that,” said John David Santos, who owns The Lord & I Funeral home and serves as president of the corporation that controls the cemetery.

Santos said he simply wanted to serve the community and never wanted to cause any problems.

Texas Department of Banking conducts background checks on anyone who wants to start what the state calls a “perpetual care” cemetery. The company deposits part of the proceeds from each plot into a trust fund, which covers maintenance expenses.

Santos said the cemetery will include trees, landscaping and a 200-foot buffer between the plots and the property line. At the request of neighbors, Santos agreed to build a fence between the cemetery and nearby homes — even though some already have chain-link and block walls.

“We did go round and round with the city,” Santos said, adding that the delays cost him time and money. “But I’m just glad we were able to move forward.”

Santos also met with concerned neighbors.

“There’s fewer concerned residents,” Romero said. “But there’s still concerned residents.”

Many neighbors remain angry they didn’t know about the cemetery plans. They also want Peñitas to halt construction.

“The problem is I can’t go into a lawsuit on behalf of some citizens knowing that we’ll lose taxpayer dollars,” Romero said. “And I anticipate that we’ll have to pay out in a countersuit.”

Longoria, Romero, Peñitas Mayor Rodrigo “Rigo” Lopez, Peñitas City Councilman Jose Roel Flores and Hidalgo County Precinct 3 Commissioner Joe Flores met with neighbors at John F. Kennedy Elementary School on Jan. 24.

They brought a site plan showing the cemetery layout and a rendering of the cemetery gate, but reiterated that state law doesn’t allow Peñitas to regulate the cemetery.

“The county and the city can’t stop them,” Joe Flores said, adding that he hopes the cemetery owner will reach a compromise with neighbors.

About 15 people attended the meeting, including Miguel and Maribel Benitez, who own a home immediately east of the cemetery.

“I felt like the trust between city leaders and ourselves was broken. It was not expected and no one had said anything about a cemetery being built,” said Maribel Benitez, 50, of Peñitas. “We just felt like they really did not care about their community members.”

The area floods after about two hours of rain, said Miguel Benitez, 51, of Peñitas. He brought photos showing flooding on 11th Street.

Precinct 3 and Peñitas will work together to address any drainage problems, Flores said, adding that federal money allocated after Hurricane Dolly may be available for the area.

Maribel Benitez said she’s also worried the cemetery will make for an awkward neighbor.

“Sometimes we want to go out there and make some barbecue or have a party,” Maribel Benitez said. “And it’s going to be kind of weird: us partying while someone is mourning the death of a loved one.”

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