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Congress helps Utah cemetery to avoid government ownership

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WASHINGTON — It wasn't quite extortion. But the Utah delegation had been warning Congress to pass a bill to help Mount Olivet Cemetery in Salt Lake City, or its deed provisions could make the federal government take over the cemetery as its unwilling owner.

That argument helped persuade the Senate to give final passage to the bill Friday on a voice vote. It now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The cemetery is built on land that was once owned by the federal government. When it was signed over to the cemetery association 100 years ago, the deed said that if the land were ever used for anything but a cemetery, its ownership would revert to the federal government.

The nonprofit group that owns the cemetery has reported it is under financial stress and would like to sell off some undeveloped land to solidify its financial future.

Of the 80 acres it owns, only 20 have been used for the cemetery. It seeks to sell 13 acres to the Rowland Hall school for expansion. Salt Lake City has approved zoning changes for that expansion.

Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, who sponsored the bill in the House, earlier warned its members, "If, in fact, the cemetery were to go bankrupt … the land would move back to the federal government. I do not think the Bureau of Land Management wants to be in business of owning and operating a cemetery in Salt Lake City."

The House earlier approved the bill on a 422-0 vote.

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said on Friday, "This common-sense bill puts local control back in the hands of Utah. I applaud the Senate for passing this bill and agreeing that the federal government should see its way out of having any interest in the property rights of this cemetery."

The bill allows Mount Olivet to buy the federal government's interest in the property.

It requires the BLM to conduct an appraisal, at the expense of Mount Olivet, to determine the fair market value of the reversionary clause.

This story was reported in Salt Lake City.

e-mail: lee@desnews.com