Cemetery development stirs tempest Preservationists, NAACP join fight

July 03, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Under ordinary circumstances, having eight government employees stand around and watch a bulldozer would seem a waste of Howard County's money.

Under ordinary circumstances, a representative of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore would not be pelted with obscenities from people concerned about a graveyard.

But in the Ellicott City neighborhood of the Turf Valley Overlook, circumstances are far from ordinary.

Health, public works and building inspectors gathered with an ,, archaeologist and an archdiocese representative yesterday at the abandoned St. Mary's Cemetery to look for signs of bodies. The site is being cleared by a developer for new homes.

There are at least 167 bodies buried on the 3.2-acre site -- the RTC last known burial occurring in 1941. The property was a segregated cemetery; whites were buried in one corner, blacks in another.

It is the land between the two burial sites that is being bulldozed and watched. Residents, many of whom formed a group 18 months ago called Friends of St. Mary's Cemetery and Preservation Society, say that beneath the thick forest of mature polar and walnut trees are graves of children, slaves and people too poor to have headstones.

Church and county officials "are cozying up to the owner and developer and leaving us out, while we have a vested interest," said preservation society member Sandra Pezzoli.

Ms. Pezzoli says that property owner H. Allen Becker may have a legal right to develop the property, but that church and county officials have a moral responsibility to try to stop the development. The archdiocese, which originally owned the property, sold it in 1986.

In addition, the Rev. John L. Wright, director of the state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,says he has found two black county residents willing to testify that they have relatives buried in unmarked graves in St. Mary's. Mr. Wright also has called for a halt to the work.

Mr. Becker could not be reached for comment yesterday.

County officials and Mr. Becker say they believe the graves are confined to parcels at either end of the property. Mr. Becker is grading and excavating the portion of the property in between. The two homes will be priced between $284,000 and $295,000.

All the officials say that they are sympathetic but can do nothing unless bones or signs of a grave or human remains are found. Then, the bulldozing would stop until the remains could be identified and reburied elsewhere. In two days of excavation and soil testing, no bones have been uncovered.

After a meeting Monday night with both sides, county officials asked R. Christopher Goodwin and Associates, a Frederick consulting firm, to send the archaeologist to investigate while the bulldozers worked.

Meanwhile, residents are growing more angry.

The Rev. G. Michael Schleupner, who has been on the site the past two days as a representative of the archdiocese, said "things got a bit rough" yesterday when residents vilified him with "four-letter words."

Father Schleupner said he had been asked by a group of residents to report on his conversations with the archaeologist and Mr. Becker. When he reported that he was "satisfied that a thorough job was being done to make sure no remains were being disturbed," he was pelted with obscenities. He said Mr. Becker told him of a similar encounter earlier in the day.

The only condition under which the remains might not be buried elsewhere, said county State's Attorney William R. Hymes, would be if they were identified by a relative who would not consent to their removal.

The ultimate decision about whether a grave stays or goes to another cemetery is up to Mr. Hymes. If several graves were discovered in the middle of the property, it might not serve a purpose to move them, he said.

Buddy Roogow, Governor Schaefer's director of operations, also has visited the site.

The neighborhood is "justifiably concerned that a cemetery of historic significance on this site is being disturbed," he said. "My personal viewpoint is that it's very alarming to see this ground -- which some view as hallowed and sacred -- in jeopardy. I have every sympathy with residents" who feel the property is being desecrated.

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