Carroll group acts to save old burial sites from bulldozer

October 07, 1991|By Deborah I. Greene | Deborah I. Greene,Carroll County Bureau of The Sun

Not much has disturbed the peace of Col. William Jordan since the Revolutionary War hero was laid to rest more than

TC century ago beneath a mulberry bush in the middle of a Carroll County field.

Like the resting places of other county forefathers, there was little more than the distant rumbling of a farmer's tractor around planting time to break the stillness of this abandoned gravesite.

That is, not until now.

Mystic Kane Manor, a 22-lot subdivision, soon will sprout up around the 19th century gravesite of Colonel Jordan, and developers plan more houses in a field across Route 32 near Nicodemus Road.

The unclaimed burial sites of a number of Carroll County families lie precariously in the path of progress, according to Karen Dattilio, president of the county's genealogical society.

"It's unbelievable the number of cemeteries lost each year, plowed under or bulldozed over for houses," she said.

Of the 80 cemeteries the society has discovered in the Hampstead-Manchester area, 30 have no covenants dictating the sale of the land and therefore are not protected under state law.

More than half of the 38 cemeteries found in the Sykesville area are unmarked and exist only in the memories of a few distant relatives, the society said.

"It's not going to take much to persuade somebody to move a cemetery for X amount of dollars when some builder plans a development or a major road through it," Ms. Dattilio said.

The society has been identifying family and church cemeteries since 1984, but only recently has taken up the battle to protect the burial sites.

Chuck Thompson, the county attorney, said he is outlining a process that would give the volunteer group authority to search for old gravesites on land proposed for development. The group would work with county planners to help designate the sites and ensure that they are not destroyed.

Officials for the county Home Builders Association say developers do not object to the state law aimed at protecting burial sites, but some are concerned that "no-growth-ers" may have undue influence on Carroll's future.

"I have a problem with someone coming onto a property that I've gone to great expense to acquire -- and through the gates of hell to get developed -- and have them say 'I think somebody might be buried there,' " said Scott O. Miller, an associate broker with ERA Caton Realty in Carroll County.

He represents an Ellicott City landowner involved in a dispute with the Turf Valley community over the removal of bodies from the old St. Mary's cemetery and the construction of a subdivision there.

"If the family has not made provisions to protect these graves, then who are these people to come in and interfere with the rights of developers and with the rights of the family?" he said. "If there is no covenant protecting a gravesite then it should be the developer's responsibility and his expense to exhume and relocate the bodies in a cemetery -- where they should be."

He said developers, landowners and the government should decide whether and how a site may be developed, not special-interest groups.

"I understand that people are concerned about these hallowed grounds, but reason has to prevail," Mr. Miller said. "If a developer follows the rules and regulations, then he has a constitutional right to build a house on the land."

The General Assembly passed legislation last year requiring that the county record all private cemeteries in its land records, but some preservationists say the law does not go far enough to protect the graves of Carroll's earliest immigrants.

The law requires a landowner with a cemetery on his property to notify a prospective buyer of its location. The graves must be preserved in plans to develop the land around them.

It also requires a builder seeking to remove a grave to get permission from the county state's attorney and health department. However, a permit may be granted without first requiring a builder to look for heirs.

The law carries fines and sentences for disturbing a grave without permission, but preservationists say there is no legal way to ensure that a builder obeys the law when confronted with a family plot most have forgotten.

The law "is just an honor system for builders," said Barbara Sieg, president of the Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites. "No one ever seems to go to jail or be fined for illegally disturbing or moving a grave site."

"The law has no teeth in it," Ms. Dattilio said. She and other society members plan to lobby for stiffer laws to increase fines for those who disturb a gravesite.

Because of the law's limitations, the society has made it its business to track development by attending public planning review sessions and look for cemeteries on the land.

Frequently, records of old family gravesites are lost through the years as the land passes from hand to hand and the stones that marked the graves are plowed under or discarded.

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