Supporters of a 19th century cemetery near Ellicott City are vowing to continue their fight to prevent a developer from bulldozing land outside the cemetery's official boundaries that may contain more gravesites.
Rick Swinghammer, a member of Friends of St. Mary's Cemetery, was angry when told the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning had approved a builder's plan to develop two lots on 3.2 acres of land that form a U-shape around the cemetery.
Swinghammer's group has found three grave markers outside the St. Mary Cemetery's boundaries and contends that more are scattered throughout the area. It has found records that 116 unidentified graves are in the area.
But the county's planners and its state's attorney, who must approve the removal of graves, say it is perfectly legal for a developer to use bulldozers to locate the burial sites as long as they are relocated in a manner specified by state law.
"That's the most preposterous thing I've ever heard," said Swinghammer, who lives near the area and has joined with other residents and descendants of people buried at St. Mary's Cemetery in the 1800s.
He had been encouraged a few weeks ago when the county's public works director, James Irvin, told the group in a letter that a developer should not be allowed to put in underground pipes and lines if graves are there.
Irvin still disagrees with the planning department's decision to approve the site plan, but said he is unable to reverse it.
Richard B. Hughes, chief archaeologist at the Maryland Historic Trust, said the problem points to a flaw in the state law that allows gravesites to be removed so easily.
"There's really nothing in the law that takes into consideration the historic value of cemeteries," Hughes said, adding that many gravesites for slaves have vanished over the years. "If the state's attorney is not concerned with the historic aspect, he'll say 'yes, go ahead and remove the grave.' "
He said the owners could identify each gravesite on the land without disturbing any remains at a cost of roughly $5,000. That, he said, would be preferable to bulldozing.
Developer H. Allen Becker, who owns the 3.2 acres and plans to either develop homes on the lots or sell them, could not be reached for comment.
William R. Hymes, the state's attorney, and Marsha McLaughlin, chief of the county's land development office, said the developer should be allowed to use heavy equipment to clear the land, even if it comes into contact with graves. Hymes said that would not be considered desecration along the lines of vandalizing grave markers, as the group charges.
But Swinghammer said he wants someone to conduct an archaeological survey to find the sites and argued that the developer should not be able to build on any of them.
"Once a bulldozer happens upon one of the graves, it is already disturbed and possibly damaged," he said. "I totally reject the idea that stumbling across graves during the excavation procedure does not constitute desecration."