Plans to develop a plot of land in northeast Baltimore has residents and the developer arguing over an old cemetery. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun video)
A forgotten graveyard and neighborhood questions about how large it is stand between a Baltimore developer and his plan to construct five homes in the Westfield neighborhood.
Only one headstone remains at Christopher Cemetery, which dates at least to the early 1800s. Westfield residents will tell visitors that the cemetery’s surrounding streets — such as Eunice and Edna avenues — are named for the Christopher family, which purchased the land in 1773. The family eventually lost the last undeveloped parcels of the property, called Royston’s Study, including the cemetery, to a tax sale in the 1960s.
These days, the sprawling farmlands and marshes that were part of the Christopher family’s estate in northeast Baltimore have been replaced by small single-family homes with tidy yards.
But the Christophers are still there in the hidden cemetery, tucked behind a cluster of homes in an acre of woods. And, neighbors say, there may be more graves than previously known.
Legislation before the General Assembly would increase protections for local cemeteries that have been abandoned, bulldozed or just neglected — like the cemetery beneath a strip mall in Northeast Baltimore.
In 2006, Jeffrey Jackson purchased the remaining undeveloped land, along with the little cemetery, for $193,000. His brother, Ray Jackson, plans to build five homes on one end of the property and fence off the cemetery on the other end for the community.
Still, when Ray Jackson’s company Stonewall Capital filed early drafts for the project, called Royston Gardens, with the city planning commission last year, neighbors opposed to disturbing the property began to organize.
Angela Jancius heads the Westfield Neighborhood Improvement Association and its efforts to halt the development. She has spent hours compiling historical documents, gathering signatures on petitions and contacting preservation experts — in hopes of proving the unmarked cemetery is larger than Jackson believes.
Jancius fears the city risks losing a piece of its heritage. Worse yet, the construction could mean disturbing bodies.
“There's a huge sense among residents that it’s a sacred space and people are really upset about this,” Jancius said. “There are people nearby that say they're having nightmares about this. This is scary to them and highly disturbing.”
Jackson said he respects the neighbors’ concerns and has made concessions, but he wonders if the issue is less about the cemetery than development.
“If this was a question about preservation of a cemetery and not anti-development, then I think this would have been dealt with a long time ago,” he said.
Jancius and other neighbors said they worried the development might decrease their property values, cause flooding in their basements, claim that last bit of green space they walk their dogs through in the evenings and destroy a habitat for foxes, frogs and owls.
“We wouldn’t have a fighting chance because it’s private property, but the cemetery gives us a fighting chance,” Jancius said. “He bought a lemon. It’s not a good space to develop.”
To assuage the neighbors, Jackson said, his homes won’t have basements. He also attended a community meeting to hear neighbors’ concerns and hired an outside company to survey the cemetery with ground-penetrating radar.
And, he said, new stormwater management infrastructure he must install may help with neighborhood flooding.
“I'm trying to be diplomatic in how we facilitate moving the property forward,” Jackson said. “I understand it, the argument, and I'm trying to work as best I can. There's a lot of emotion in the community, but I'm walking and not running to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.”
The ground survey did identify what appeared to be seven or eight graves, which neighbors and Christopher family members marked with small wreaths and artificial flowers. However, Stonewall Capital staff and Westfield neighbors disagree whether the survey covered the correct portions of land, partially because the two groups are working from different historic documents defining the cemetery boundaries.
Based on her research of historic burial plots, Jancius believes there may be many more people buried in the plot than previously recorded.
She is frustrated too that the city doesn’t do more to protect the legacy of cemeteries like this one.
Baltimore has a history of paving over historic cemeteries in the 20th century. A few miles south of Westfield, several restoration efforts are under way at burial sites like Laurel Cemetery and St. Vincent’s Cemetery, which were bulldozed for development years ago.
City Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who represents Westfield, said the idea of digging near Christopher Cemetery without firm knowledge of its boundaries makes him uneasy. However, he does not have the ability to intervene directly.
“It’s a little like being a mediator, to step into something where you don’t have any statutory power,” Dorsey said. “The only power I have is to legislate.”
Dorsey is researching what it would take to propose a city guideline establishing a protective radius around the perimeter of known cemeteries. Still, anything he does is unlikely to come to fruition in time to affect the fate of Christopher Cemetery.
From a legal perspective, cemeteries are complicated: Burial laws intersect with property rights, preservation tax credits and criminal penalties for disinterment. In Maryland, laws concerning historic cemetery preservation and maintenance are vague or contain loopholes. For example, the Maryland Office of Cemetery Oversight does not directly oversee family cemeteries.
In 2018, Gov. Larry Hogan signed a bill sponsored by then-Del. Tony Knotts that requires the owner of a burial site that is more than 50 years old to consult with the Maryland Historical Trust about the proper treatment of markers, human remains and the environment surrounding the burial site.
Jackson submitted his development plans to the Trust, which reviewed the material and made several recommendations, including to complete historical background research of the property and Christopher family and to hire an archaeologist to examine the property and monitor any excavation.
When asked about the Trust’s recommendations, Stonewall Capital’s consulting engineer Al Barry said the company was not required by law to undertake them.
Knotts, who represented Prince George’s County, originally wanted his cemetery bill to be stronger, he said. The plan was to create a law establishing a method for governments to step in and care for abandoned, overgrown cemeteries and to ensure the preservation of those more than 50 years old.
“It was gutted,” Knotts said of his bill, which he agreed to simplify in order to get it ratified.
The former legislator — he did not run for re-election in 2018 — hopes other legislators will eventually build off the slimmed-down version of his law.
“We work so hard to take care of individuals alive; what are we doing when they die?” Knotts said. “We just abandon people when they're dead. Those plotted cemeteries and headstones can either bring beauty or discontent to a community because they are part of a community.”
Advocates like Eileen McGuckian, president of the Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites, said cemeteries are often forgotten by historic preservationists because they overlap architecture and archaeology.
The coalition maintains that cemeteries should be preserved for their historic value. Once a cemetery is lost, McGuckian said, it’s lost forever.
“To me, it's a no-brainer that you preserve historic cemeteries along with the beautiful architecture we have,” she said.
McGuckian wants the city to designate Christopher Cemetery as a historic site and expects that the coalition may initiate such conversations with the city later this year as the proposal works its way through the planning commission.
The commission still needs to schedule a hearing for the public to share their concerns or support. It could then ask Stonewall Capital to make changes before taking up the project for final approval.
Christopher descendant Sharon Baker said she was horrified to discover in 2006 that the family lost the cemetery to a tax sale. Baker was only 12 years old when the tax sale occurred.
Lately, Baker has been working on a family genealogy and believes that at least one individual buried in the cemetery was a Revolutionary War patriot. She erected a modest sign on the edge of the property, the only evidence within view of the street that a cemetery lies nestled in the woods.
Baker believes it was a smart business move for the Jackson brothers to acquire the land and try to develop it. Still, she said, while the cemetery’s boundaries are in dispute, they have a duty to preserve it.