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Sunday, Apr. 28, 2013

Handmade roadside memorials to be taken down in Independence

The Kansas City Star

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Cheryl Cooper wants her son’s face to stay where it is.

That is, on a photograph affixed to a traffic signal near Noland Road and South Osage Street in Independence.

That’s where a speeding vehicle fleeing Independence police slammed into her 17-year-old son, Christopher, while he was riding his bicycle in 2007. She has maintained a roadside memorial there since then.

“That spot was where my son was last alive, and it is sacred to me,” Cooper said.

But, according to a new policy announced last week in Independence, public works employees soon will take down all hand-crafted roadside memorials in the city.

Relatives of Independence residents who died in a wreck on city streets now can participate in a standardized marker program. For $150, they can have installed a 24-by-18-inch sign bearing the victim’s name and an optional message such as “Buckle Up” or “Drive Carefully.” The sign would remain in place for two years, after which the family could have it.

The Independence program reflects recent efforts by state highway organizations to develop uniform policies regarding such memorials, which can obstruct right of ways and perhaps distract drivers.

Across the nation, policies differ. Some states encourage the markers, with New Mexico even protecting them as cultural properties. Yet many others regulate them.

Missouri statutes prohibit non-approved items such as advertising or political signs in state right of ways, said Holly Dentner, MoDOT spokeswoman in Jefferson City. But the department doesn’t remove family memorials unless they represent an obvious safety concern, she added.

“There is not a written policy that we leave them alone, but we do unless there is some sort of safety issue,” she said.

MoDOT encourages residents to consider the Adopt-A-Highway program, which allows families to honor loved ones by adopting stretches of roadways for periodic cleanups. The department will supply signs that since 2001 have included names of loved ones, Dentner said.

In Independence, members of the city’s volunteer Beautification Commission long had worried about how threadbare some of the memorials had become and the distraction they might cause drivers. Though city ordinances long have banned non-official signs on public right of ways, the city recently decided to enforce the ordinances and offer the official marker program.

But some Independence residents bristle at the idea of removing their memorials or paying to finance a standardized one.

“I have no control over what they city does, but I will ask why,” said Cooper, whose memorial for her son includes a photograph, protected by a sheet of clear plastic, and artificial flowers placed in adjoining planters mounted on a marble slab, all of which is anchored to the pole by steel bands.

“If I felt my son’s memorial was in any way a danger or distraction, it wouldn’t be there.”

Another mother who has maintained a Noland Road memorial since a daughter’s death in October 2008 has mixed feelings about the new rules.

“I could understand if that has been so much of a distraction that it is causing wrecks,” said Norberta Lull, whose daughter, Sondra Cunningham, 23, died when a car in which she riding crashed near 23rd Street and Noland Road during an alleged drag race.

“But I don’t have anything up there for anyone to read.

“I know I am not paying $150.”

She and friends of her daughter have marked the site with flowers and other remembrances affixed to a pole in a Noland Road median.

Independence officials defend the new policy, which they said allows them to show sensitivity to mourners but also enforce existing ordinances.

“A lot of time (the families’) intent is to commemorate the location,” said Robert Heacock, Independence city manager.

“But when those memorials come face to face with the reality of maintaining a right of way, it can be somewhat problematic.”

Some of the memorials were “really getting out of hand,” said 2nd District Councilman Curt Dougherty. He complained about city mowing equipment hitting some of the memorials, or memorials blowing into the street and hindering traffic.

City representatives will attempt to notify family members whose memorials will be taken down, said 3rd District Councilman Myron Paris.

Cooper and Lull, meanwhile, point out they already participate in existing programs that allow them to honor deceased loved ones.

Cooper is enrolled in the Independence Adopt-A-Street Program, and a sign declaring that arrangement already stands adjacent to her son’s roadside memorial. As part of that program, she and friends have helped clean a 1-mile stretch of Noland Road since 2009.

“I get an invitation every year to the city’s volunteer dinner,” she said.

Lull, meanwhile, has a three-year agreement with MoDOT to clean 23rd Street — also known as Missouri 78 — between Noland and Lee’s Summit roads. A MoDOT sign bearing her daughter’s name stands along 23rd Street.

Still, Cooper and Lull feel compelled to maintain the nonpermanent memorials that began as spontaneous gestures by friends and family members. Lull concedes that sometimes the memorials fade and fall apart. She’s asked her friends not to leave glass votive candles or anything else that can create a road hazard.

But she still believes she needs to mark the spot to honor her daughter. The man driving the car in which her daughter died is serving a seven-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter.

She also resents Dougherty’s stand on the issue. She remembers meeting with Dougherty when he was running for Jackson County Legislature in 2010, and he indicated that he had no issue with nonpermanent roadside memorials.

“I didn’t have a problem with them at the time,” Doughtery said last week. “But these things have gotten bigger and more elaborate, and the ordinance is very clear.”

The driver of the car that struck Christopher Cooper pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, resisting arrest and leaving the scene of an accident. He received a 15-year sentence.

Later, Cheryl Cooper and her former husband, John Cooper, settled a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Independence Police Department. The lawsuit alleged that police were liable for not following the city’s pursuit policy. As part of the agreement, the Coopers dismissed claims against the police and the city’s ambulance provider.

Neither party admitted fault.

“My bottom line is that the city didn’t cause my son’s death, but it contributed to it,” Cheryl Cooper said. “I am willing to be flexible on this, but I would at least like to be informed as to any decisions that have been made regarding my son’s memorial.”

Lull declined to say what she would do regarding her daughter’s memorial.

“I do have my daughter’s grave site, and I can do what I want there.”

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

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