TAMPA — For decades, the city of Tampa has maintained the entire 128-year-old Martí/Colón Cemetery despite owning less than a third of the West Tampa burial ground at 3110 W Columbus Drive.
That’s about to change. The city will still care for the full 5.5 acres but will soon own nearly all of it.
Liza Grizzle, Parks & Recreation Department administrative manager, said the city is in the process of buying some of the cemetery parcels from Patrick Thorpe, a 37-year-old Tampa architect.
The city currently owns 1.66 acres and Thorpe has 3.81 acres, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s website. Garden of Memories Inc. owns the remaining .04 acres.
Thorpe said that he is selling all of his cemetery land for $22,414.11, which will cover what he spent on buying the parcels and “everything that it cost me to maintain ownership plus a 30% service fee.”
The city might have to deal with one other party as part of the transaction for the cemetery that was initially established for the Latin community of West Tampa during its pioneering years.
Just under 3 acres of Thorpe’s cemetery property was assessed a city stormwater fee of $1,574.83 in 2021, according to the Hillsborough County Tax Collector’s website.
Thorpe said he petitioned the city to cancel the fee because he was not earning a cent from the cemetery and because he purchased the lots as a public service to keep them away from developers. But the city, he said, dragged out the process for so long that the payment became delinquent, and the tax certificate was auctioned. So, Thorpe said, it is up to the city to handle that now.
The certificate was purchased by Natascha Troehler of Arizona for $1,839.17, according to the tax collector’s website.
If Troehler is not reimbursed with 18% running interest by April 2024, she can place a lien on the property. It would then go up for auction.
“I don’t plan on doing that,” Troehler said. “I bought the certificate to protect the cemetery.”
But Troehler would like to be paid what she is owed, which, with interest, is currently $2,066.12.
She is among those who buys tax certificates throughout the country to then sell back to the property owners with interest.
“I couldn’t believe that a few acres in Tampa was available so cheap,” Troehler said. “Then, I did my due diligence and learned it was a cemetery that developers had once wanted and how the current owner bought the property with good intentions. I worried the owner forgot to pay and would lose it.”
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In 2018, through a tax deed auction, a family purchased nearly 2 acres of vacant Martí/Colón land and planned to build a home on it. The city refused to rezone the lots for residential use, so the family put the cemetery land for sale on Craigslist.
Thorpe bought those lots and then, over the next few years, purchased another three privately owned Martí/Colón parcels, with the intention of either selling the land to the city or a nonprofit that wanted to care for the cemetery.
“I never wanted to run a cemetery,” Thorpe said. “I just wanted to keep it safe.”
Garden of Memories Inc. has not wanted to sell its sliver. Thorpe said that they are owned by Service Corporation International, which, according to its website, is “North America’s leading provider of funeral, cremation and cemetery services.”
The city once owned the entire cemetery before splitting it up. When the other owners’ portions fell into disrepair in the 1990s, the city agreed to maintain all of Martí/Colón.
Thorpe expects the deal with the city to be finalized within the next 30 days.
Martí/Colón was originally twice its current size, extending north across modern Columbus Drive to where a shopping plaza is now located. The city bought the cemetery from a private owner in the 1930s and then supposedly ensured all graves were moved from the northern portion before they turned that section into a park and later sold it to a developer.
But it has been long believed that graves remain under the road and stores. If true, the northern section would still be considered an active cemetery.
Thorpe hopes the city will finally investigate that claim.
“There is evidence proving burials exist under Columbus Drive,” he said. “It would not be prudent to assume burials were relocated before the shopping center was built.”