County may regulate roadside memorials

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Fortwendel suggests one-year time limit

By Kevin Koelling, Managing Editor

TELL CITY - One county commissioner wanted to seek public input on rules that could be imposed for roadside memorials, some of which he called "the shrines people put up."

"I think there should be a time limit, maybe a year," Commissioner Jody Fortwendel said at a regular meeting Sept. 2.

County attorney Chris Goffinet said a landowner had asked about memorials along state highways, and noted some have been set up in county rights-of-way, as well.

The law is quite clear; those along county roads are the county's responsibility, he told the commissioners. While no ordinance exists, the commissioners have the right to decide what is or is not placed in them, he added, but "we've never considered the issue, frankly, it's just something that happens."

County Highway Superintendent Ed Feix posed the question to the state highway department, and was told "they don't have rules on it either; they just kind of allow those things to be placed there," Goffinet said.

State officials may require people to talk to them about memorials' locations, he explained, to ensure a location in front of someone's house won't be a problem, that they're not too big or close to the road, that they can be mowed around and won't pose a danger to the public.

County rights-of-way aren't marked like the state's, Goffinet said, and vary in width. Feix has records of them, "so they're not some mystery," but they aren't defined by concrete markers like those along state highways, he added.

"Nobody wants to stop these things just for the sake of stopping them," Goffinet said, but Feix would like the county to ensure they're not a safety issue and workers don't have to worry about mowing them down. Some people wouldn't mind the markers being placed close to their front doors and others would, he added.

If the process for erecting memorials included notifying the public, any objections could be voiced in advance of their placement, Commissioner Gary Dauby said, suggesting the ordinance could require anyone intending to establish one to appear before the commissioners.

The memorials have their own name, according to a March report from Albuquerque, N.M. television station KRQE. Workers involved in a reconstruction and widening of Interstate 25 had placed four concrete barriers around a descanso to prevent the equipment from accidentally damaging it. In cases where working around a memorial isn't possible, it's moved and replaced once work is complete.

No law requires crews to protect descansos, the KRQE report noted, but there is one that prohibits their destruction or desecration in New Mexico.

A May 2008 report from Dothan, Ala.'s television station WTVY said state officials were removing memorials along interstate highways because they were dangerous, and were considering their removal along other roads.

Fortwendel said he doesn't have a problem with memorials being erected on county property, but they should not be permanent.

"That's what we have cemeteries for," he said.

Dauby wasn't sure public input was necessary before an ordinance is adopted "because we're not going to affect the public."

Fortwendel said a tight budget forced the county to cut back on mowing, both in distances from the road and frequency.

Those cuts led to two telephone-line markers being damaged the week before, "and I don't want (the county) to be responsible for mowing somebody's shrine down," he said. "Now if they want to put it on private property, not a problem."

Fortwendel realizes making memorials temporary "is not going to go over so good with some people," he said, so "I'd like to have their input."

Goffinet said he would provide some ideas to the commissioners and seek their input.