Old cemetery preservedin 3-way land exchange Council vote saves it as open space

February 17, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Residents of the Turf Valley Overlook neighborhood in Ellicott City proved last night that not only can you fight city hall, you can win.

Their victory came when the Howard County Council voted unanimously to preserve as open space the heavily wooded 3.2-acre St. Mary's Cemetery property in the middle of their neighborhood.

After the vote, Sandra Pezzoli, one of the leaders of the fight to preserve the cemetery, embraced Councilman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, in the hallway outside the council chambers.

"This is a good thing," she said. "I am elated. This is absolutely what we have wanted for a long time. I am very happy."

Mr. Gray, who had supported the residents from the beginning, chastised the administration for having "handled this badly from the beginning." He said he would introduce legislation next month that should help prevent a similar situation from occurring.

The property was preserved as open space by means of a three-way land swap between the county, property owner H. Allen Becker and developer Donald R. Reuwer Jr.

Mr. Becker ceded his property to the county in exchange for a half-acre lot that was part of the open space in Turf Valley Overlook. Mr. Becker then ceded that parcel to Mr. Reuwer in exchange for a lot in Martin Meadows and a lot in Turf Valley Overlook.

The agreement allows Mr. Reuwer, the developer of Martin Meadows and Turf Valley Overlook, to use the acreage ceded to him by Mr. Becker to help fulfill his open space requirement in Martin Meadows.

The three-way exchange also depended on a group of residents -- the Friends of St. Mary's Cemetery and Preservation Society -- agreeing to provide perpetual care for the cemetery under an agreement signed by Mr. Becker and Archbishop William H. Keeler of the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore.

The archdiocese sold the cemetery property to Mr. Reuwer for $10,000 in 1987, and he subsequently sold it to Mr. Becker. According to the agreement, the archdiocese will give the society $10,000 to help maintain the cemetery.

The society plans to use interest on the gift from the archdiocese to pay expenses, the first of which is liability insurance, Ms. Pezzoli said. In addition, the society will ask residents for contributions to pay legal fees and other expenses, she said.

The struggle to preserve the cemetery began in 1990 with the formation of the society. After searching church records and interviewing heirs, the society concluded that 167 people were buried in the racially segregated cemetery -- the last burial occurring in 1941.

Although 167 burials were recorded, only 48 headstones were found. Society members assumed some survivors were too poor to have bought headstones for the deceased and that bodies were buried throughout the property. The county and the developer contended that grave sites were located only in opposite ends of the segregated cemetery.

Mr. Becker began clearing two lots on the property in June to build two houses, one initially priced at $284,900, the other at $294,900.

Residents vehemently objected, and the county hired an archaeologist to make sure no graves were disturbed. None was discovered, and foundations for the two houses were laid.

But remains were unearthed July 20 when the county began excavating a utility line near the black section of the cemetery. Two days later, more remains were found and all digging stopped.

The county capitulated and began working on the deal finally approved last night by the Howard County Council.

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