Cemetery preservationists turn to council

July 29, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Residents of Turf Valley Overlook will take their battle to preserve St. Mary's cemetery to the County Council tomorrow in hopes of turning a week-long cease-fire into a more lasting truce.

Although council members are expected to be sympathetic, the council is unable to initiate the action residents want most -- the purchase of the 3.2-acre cemetery property from H. Allen Becker.

Mr. Becker wants to build and sell two houses on the lot in the heart of the neighborhood. He had cleared much of the site and laid foundations for both houses when work was stopped last week.

The stop-work order came Wednesday after a backhoe unearthed the remains of perhaps three bodies while excavating a water and sewer line in the black portion of the segregated cemetery. Other bones had been unearthed two days earlier.

Following the second discovery, County Executive Charles I. Ecker asked Mr. Becker to meet with representatives of the community to reopen negotiations that might allow residents to purchase some or all of the property. Such a meeting has yet to take place.

Residents want the county or a preservationist organization to buy the land and allow a group they have formed -- Friends of St. Mary's Cemetery and Preservation Society -- to maintain it.

Mr. Ecker and three of his department heads met with representatives of the society for 90 minutes Monday afternoon to share information and agree to basic facts regarding the sale of the property by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore in 1986 and subsequent attempts to develop it. The meeting was the first step in what Mr. Ecker said is a quest for a solution.

That solution does not include county purchase of the property as open space.

"Let me make it clear," Mr. Ecker said, "that I encourage and support any effort of the citizens involved to find a way to preserve the land surrounding the cemetery as long as it does not involve spending taxpayers' dollars."

The only way the county can acquire property is for the county executive to initiate a purchase by recommending it in the capital budget or by asking council permission to file condemnation proceedings. The council may recommend but cannot compel a purchase.

Council Chairman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, advised Mr. Ecker last week to designate county cemeteries as open space under existing regulations and permanently preserve them.

Mr. Farragut said a preventive procedure he and developer James Truby worked out for the state 20 years ago to minimize potential rights-of-way conflicts at historic sites could be adapted for use with cemeteries and grave sites.

"I could introduce legislation to require a formal survey of sites as part of the subdivision process and create a great deal of positive publicity and support, but I am not one for grandstanding," Mr. Farragut told Mr. Ecker. "This problem can also be solved administratively by simply requiring plan review staff to make this a checklist item during preliminary plan review as a method of protecting gravesites and cemeteries."

Mr. Farragut said his approach would not resolve "the present unfortunate situation" but would prevent similar conflicts.

Residents said they found the meeting with Mr. Ecker helpful.

"We heard each other in a meaningful way," said Sandra Pezzoli, one of the leaders in the fight to keep the cemetery property free from development. "The appeals of descendants were heard."

Residents say they believe people are buried throughout the parcel. County officials and the developer believe gravesites are confined to opposite ends of the property. No graves were discovered in between.

"No one believed us," said J. Carroll Holzer, attorney for the residents. But, he said, "It is becoming more evident that the whole area is a cemetery."

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