Lessons From St. Mary's Cemetery HOWARD COUNTY

February 19, 1993

When it came to the St. Mary's Cemetery controversy, the residents of Turf Valley Overlook never let the matter rest in peace.

Instead, with persistent badgering and a willingness to publicly embarrass all parties involved, the residents were able to save St. Mary's from the developer's bulldozer. This week, the Howard County Council signed off on an agreement involving a three-way land swap that leaves the cemetery intact.

Despite our earlier advice that the Overlook residents ease off, we cannot help but admire the dogged determination they exhibited. Faced with a home builder's plans to disturb gravesites just beyond their back yards, they took on the establishment -- and won. Their victory has elements found in classic story-telling, such as the little guy winning one from big business.

Of course, the episode wasn't as simple as that. Still, given the current political climate in the county that has residents fighting with elected officials over growth, we do believe some important lessons may be borrowed from the St. Mary's Cemetery saga.

The most important is that compromise works. In the case of the cemetery, most of the parties involved, including the residents, had to give up something to achieve something.

The developer, who had hoped to build homes near the cemetery, had to agree to give up the parcel in return for other land on which to build.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, which essentially abandoned the cemetery by selling it off in 1987, was required to donate $10,000 to a maintenance fund.

And the residents who fought to preserve the cemetery had to promise to assume responsibility for its upkeep.

A great deal of credit must also be given to County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who insisted throughout the negotiations that he did not want to thrust the county into the business of acquiring abandoned graveyards. His deft diplomacy resulted in agreement that will cost Howard County nothing.

Ultimately, the St. Mary's incident proved that everyone can win when all parties are willing to concede a little.

That's a lesson we hope takes hold in other public debates now sizzling in Howard County.

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