Preservationists seek to buy St. Mary's Cemetery

July 12, 1992|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

The group fighting development at St. Mary's Cemetery in Ellicott City is trying to buy the property, prompting the cemetery owner to halt construction of one of the homes being built there.

Since last weekend, the Friends of St. Mary's Cemetery and Preservation Society collected about $50,000 in private pledges to buy the land, said Sandra Pezzoli, a society member. Cemetery owner H. Allen Becker's last offer was $100,000 for the two-acre lot that contains marked graves, she said. A concrete house foundation was poured at the lot Thursday.

Becker has agreed to delay building that home, said his attorney, David A. Carney. That would leave a one-acre lot, upon which Mr. Becker is proceeding with construction of another home.

If the society buys the land, it will serve everyone's interest, said Ms. Pezzoli, a resident of nearby Turf Valley Overlook.

"Becker would be able to sell his land, we would be able to protect the cemetery," she said. "If we could somehow manage to do a combination of public and private funds, I think we could get there."

Ms. Pezzoli said the group intends to ask the county to contribute.

The preservation society has fought a sometimes bitter battle to keep bulldozers out of the historic cemetery nestled under poplar and walnut trees and surrounded by the new Turf Valley Overlook subdivision.

At least 167 bodies are believed to be buried on the 3.2-acre site, with the last known burial occurring in 1941. The area in which the two concrete house foundations were poured last week is in the middle of the segregated cemetery, between one corner where whites were buried and another reserved for blacks.

The society maintains that the entire wooded property may have graves of children, slaves and people too poor to have headstones.

Both house foundations were dug a week ago under a county-hired archaeologist's supervision, and no remains were detected, said James Irvin, county Public Works director. In addition, the archaeologist took samples of the earth before the foundations were dug and found none of the soil disturbances typically associated with graves, Mr. Irvin said.

An archaeologist is expected to return to the site tomorrow to observe excavation for sewer and utility lines.

The county hopes to bill Mr. Becker for the archaeologist's fee. David Carney, a Columbia zoning attorney representing Mr. Becker, said his client is considering sharing the cost with the county.

Mr. Carney said his client and society members had "sincere, straightforward discussions" about how to protect graves on the site.

Concern over St. Mary's has fueled an effort to introduce state legislation next year to give neglected private cemeteries the same protections granted to public ones.

Barbara Sieg, who was stirred into action five years ago when Ellicott City residents discovered headstones on their property, is now president of a statewide group called Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites.

She said her group has drafted legislation to prevent widespread destruction of historic gravesites. The legislation would bring historic unmarked graves under an existing law that protects public cemeteries.

"The law says that they cannot be moved without due process, publicly advertising for heirs, and to move it, not just to bulldoze it," explains Janet Colburn, vice president of the coalition. The coalition hopes to pass a stronger version of an "unworkable" law passed in 1991 that only applies to Carroll County.

It would allow preservation groups to help county record-keepers keep title information accurate. The groups would check original deeds for covenants, sometimes lost after several transfers, that protect family cemeteries.

State Sen. Christopher McCabe, whose 14th District includes the cemetery, said there appears to be a need for such legislation. It will require a great deal of coordination with local authorities, however, to overcome fears that it would be another unfunded state mandate.

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