- Kevin D. Thompson Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The wind blows, gently, this afternoon at The South Florida National Cemetery.
Two women, middle-aged, lean over one of the headstones, place a bouquet of flowers, say a few words, bow their heads.
They don’t stay long. Ten minutes, tops.
But more mourners are expected in the coming years.
That’s why the national cemetery, open to all members of the armed forces who have a minimum active duty service requirement, is about to undergo a $31 million expansion.
Starting in May, the cemetery will develop 25 acres by adding 21,000 grave sites with an additional 10 years of burial. There will also be a new entrance sign, an upgraded maintenance gate, a new public assembly area and an additional committal shelter.
“This is considered a major project,” said Kevin Ridgeway, the cemetery’s interim director.
The project should take 18 months, he added.
The 338-acre site started in 2002 with 113 acres. The first burial was in April 16, 2007. The cemetery serves an estimated 400,000 veterans in South Florida who lived within 75 miles of the site, Ridgeway said.
As of Oct. 1, 24,000 veterans and eligible dependents are interred at the cemetery. Ridgeway said there are more than 13,000 graves remaining.
The project is the second of seven phases. Ridgeway said phases three through seven are unknown.
“They’re not forecast yet,” he said. “The master plan is just that, a plan. It’s not set in stone so there is some flexibility.”
The first phase cost $75 million and included building the cemetery’s main Administrative/Public Information Center building, the maintenance building, roadways, irrigation, landscaping and establishing burial sections.
Jeffrey Zettle, the cemetery’s supervisor, said he’s not expecting any major issues when phase two starts.
“There may be some minor traffic problems, but we’re not anticipating anything,” he said.
Construction will be at the northwest part of the cemetery.
“When all of the equipment is here, we won’t even see them when they’re going in and out,” Zettle said. “We don’t want to have services interrupted.”
The cemetery is located west of Lake Worth on State Road 7, just south of Lantana Road and north of Boynton Beach Boulevard. It’s the fifth national cemetery built in Florida and the 125th in the national cemetery system.
The site was once a farmland, with portions of the site used for grazing for cattle right up until the National Cemetery Administration paid $11.2 million for the site, according to property records.
The cemetery opened for burials in 2007 and was formally dedicated on March 9, 2008.
Ridgeway said after phase two is completed, the cemetery will be even better.
“We look forward to this,” he said.