LAFAYETTE -- For nearly a decade, the chalk-white forest of wooden crosses overlooking the rush of Highway 24 has stood as an unflinching memorial to the more than 6,800 American casualties of two modern wars.

There are about 4,000 crosses, and room for no more. But troops keep dying; a nearby sign keeps tally, 6,837 as of June 30.

Jeff Heaton describes the hillside site as "a tidal wave of grief."

"I've met a lot of people who say, 'I've driven by a couple hundred times but it wasn't until I stood up here and saw all these crosses that it really hit me in an emotional way,'" said Heaton, who in 2006 founded the memorial some initially saw as a protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A crutch rests on a cross at the Crosses of Lafayette memorial across from the Lafayette BART station in Lafayette on July 10, 2014. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area
A crutch rests on a cross at the Crosses of Lafayette memorial across from the Lafayette BART station in Lafayette on July 10, 2014. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Now, with American troops no longer fighting in Iraq and the drawdown date for the war in Afghanistan set for the end of this year, a new controversy is emerging: What will happen to the Crosses of Lafayette when the wars are done?

Organizers of the Crosses site are setting their sights on a permanent war memorial they hope will impact generations to come. But, as stakeholders are finding out, having a vision is one thing; executing it can be quite another.

As the memorial expanded to honor the Afghan war dead and the number of stark, white markers swelled into the thousands, Heaton ended up with a maintenance task he hadn't bargained for. He began working with volunteers to tend to the hillside.

Those volunteers and other stakeholders have now begun to talk about what shape a permanent memorial could take. A dozen of them gathered in late June with architects to brainstorm "wishes and dreams and ideas," as organizer Carol Reif described it.

Heaton has imagined preserving a number of the existing crosses while carving the hillside into a terraced walkway lined by commemorative art.

"We want to make it a destination point in a way that's supported by the whole community," Heaton said.

(Bay Area News Group)

Though the memorial drew early criticism as an anti-military protest, Heaton insists he has always seen it as a way to honor troops and to keep their sacrifice front and center in the public consciousness. As the years passed, that idea gradually spread, and today the memorial is praised by military officials and fallen soldiers' loved ones alike, Heaton said.

He didn't anticipate the Crosses becoming a big display -- or a big deal -- when he asked landowners and family friends Louise and Johnson Clark if he could put up some crosses there. Over the years the memorial has become sort of more accepted as a vital, dynamic part of the community," he said.

Others agree.

"It's kind of part of the fabric of the area," said Pleasant Hill resident Einar Acuna, who often takes BART from the Lafayette station across from the hillside. He is adamant that some sort of memorial be preserved, regardless of what shape it takes.

"Maybe they should just keep it -- maybe not in that fashion, but in another way," he said.

Up close, it's clear the years have taken a toll on the 4,000 crosses, Stars of David and Islamic crescents. Most are weather-beaten, and they get shorter as volunteers trim away the bases where the wood rots in damp ground. Some bear chipped white paint, and others are decorated or tiled over in intricate mosaic. Volunteers come once a month to trim back the weeds and dry grass -- tough work on the steep slope.

A decorated cross stands at the Crosses of Lafayette memorial across from the Lafayette BART station in Lafayette on July 10, 2014. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area
A decorated cross stands at the Crosses of Lafayette memorial across from the Lafayette BART station in Lafayette on July 10, 2014. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

But the disheveled appearance is "symbolic of the fact that war is not pretty," Heaton said, and it's a concern that this point might be lost in a pristine, permanent memorial.

The complications of land development in the Bay Area are unavoidable, and this parcel comes with more obstacles than most. For one, ownership of the 6.5-acre, residentially zoned plot is not straightforward. The memorial first came to be with the blessing of Louise Clark, but with her passing in 2011 the land reverted to a family trust governed by the six Clark children, who must come to a consensus before any steps can be taken.

Lafayette City Manager Steve Falk said officials cannot make any progress in vetting potential plans until the property owners approach the city with a united front.

"The city typically is in a reactive position," Falk said. "We wait to receive a proposal from the landowner and then we will test that proposal against this web of regulations that we use to control how land is used. Unless something changes, that is essentially the role the city is in right now."

Falk said the hillside's future has been a hot topic of conversation in Lafayette for years, and that many residents will want a say in the eventual outcome. The more people involved in that process, he said, the more likely it is there will be an acceptable outcome for all.

Charles Clark says his mother expressed a desire for a permanent memorial before her death, and that he supports that wish. But family members are also considering bringing in a developer for some of the land, with a handful of houses on the flat top portion of the lot a possibility.

Other ideas that have failed to gain traction over the years have included building housing for returned veterans or for senior citizens. More promising is the possibility of turning over to BART a narrow strip of the land along Deer Hill Road for parking spaces. The revenue, conceivably, could pay to maintain a memorial park.

Or, organizers could start a nonprofit group to buy part of the land from the Clark family to house a memorial and eventually turn it over to Lafayette's Parks and Recreation department for long-term management. The site could even house a community room or outdoor amphitheater for outdoor gatherings, Clark said.

Margli Auclair, executive director of the Mount Diablo Peace and Justice Center, which was heavily involved in promoting the memorial site from its inception and has supplied many volunteers, said her organization is "supportive of whatever they do, whatever decisions they make."

Still, as Charles Clark put it, "At this point it's all pipe dreams. We still have a lot of pieces to put together."