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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Visitors to the Kern County-owned "potter's field" walk between the grave sites Wednesday afternoon. Union Cemetery Association has announced it will take over the care and renovation of the field.

There's a lot of mystery -- and interpretation -- behind the ownership of potter's field. Is it part of Historic Union Cemetery, or next to it?

For decades, long conversations and disagreements have taken place between the County of Kern and Historic Union Cemetery over ownership of the place where for years the county buried the indigent.

Earlier this week, the Historic Union Cemetery Association announced it would take over maintenance of the unkempt cemetery that the association general manager described as being county-owned.

But "ownership" seems to be a matter of interpretation.

Tony Ansolabehere, assistant assessor at the Kern County Assessor Recorder's office, said the question over who owns potter's field has been discussed multiple times over the years.

"There were long conversations about the legal stuff going on about ownership a long time ago and figuring out if that land belonged to the county or not," he said.

Assessor recorder files say potter's field is owned by Union Cemetery Association, Ansolabehere said Thursday, the day The Californian published a story about efforts to plant grass and irrigate the land.

The association's apparent ownership of the property was news to Dave Hepburn, general manager of Union Cemetery, which said in a news release it had "taken over" care of the property.

"I have no idea what this is about," Hepburn said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon, when told the county said the association owns potter's field. "I don't understand how they can say we own it if we have no documentation of that."

In the 19th century and just after World War II, indigent people were buried in potter's field through the county. The county purchased each individual plot from Union Cemetery. But ownership of these plots was not recorded, so Union Cemetery continues to hold fee title to them, according to Allan Krauter, senior administrative analyst from the county administrative office.

Also, when the county paid for potter's field plots, Union Cemetery required no perpetual care fees for them, so the county had and has no obligation to maintain the plots, Krauter stated in an email.

After pulling out Union Cemetery records and blueprints, Hepburn said that although the assessor's map may show that Union Cemetery Association is the property owner, he believes the county is still the owner of each individual block in those two-and-a-half acres.

"Many years ago, when the county bought every single space in that property, they did not pay an endowment care fund for that property," Hepburn said.

Regardless, the Union Cemetery Association says it will now maintain the potter's field there and at a site a few blocks away from the main cemetery.

"We talked to the county and they said they couldn't fit the maintenance under their budget so we decided to take over," he said.

Hepburn said he is now aware that assessor recorder records show Union Cemetery is the owner.

"I feel bad that I had not properly reviewed these documents," Hepburn said Friday.