County Council declines to buy St. Mary's


Turf Valley Overlook residents got expressions of sympathy but little else from the County Council last week in their continuing struggle to keep the St. Mary's cemetery property free from development.

County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, sought to give them more. He wanted the council to tell County Executive Charles I. Ecker that it supports residents in their request that the state and the county buy the cemetery property in the heart of their neighborhood and annex it to nearby David Force Park.

For the other three council members who had listed to the society's 90-minute presentation last Thursday -- Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, was absent -- that was too much more.

"Do we as a community want to own a cemetery?" asked Darrel Drown, R-2nd. The cemetery is in Mr. Drown's district. "If we buy this site, we would be setting a dangerous precedent."

Council Chairman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, asked whether residents and descendants who have formed a group called Friends of St. Mary's Cemetery and Preservation Society would maintain the property in perpetuity.

"That's a possibility," said Yvonne German Hope, a society board member who has relatives buried in the cemetery. "I believe we are committed to preserve this as a sacred place."

Mr. Farragut said he hoped money would become available to purchase the property.

If the county and the state cannot buy the 3.2-acre property, residents want construction to stop until 112 gravesites they say are located there are located and taken care of in accordance with state law and church covenants.

Construction has stopped temporarily until public works officials and property owner H. Allen Becker work out a new way to provide sewer and water connections to the two houses Mr. Becker has begun building on the property.

The project was stopped July 22 after the remains of several bodies were unearthed as the county was excavating a sewer line in a sewer easement near two partially buried headstones.

Public Works Director James M. Irvin said Thursday "it is clear the sewer construction cannot continue" and that his department has abandoned the easement idea altogether in favor of a device called an ejector pump.

"The developer's position is that he cannot afford to stop construction," Mr. Irvin said. "He is very anxious to find a compromise -- to find a revenue stream [to cover what he has already put into the property], but at this point there is no revenue stream of enough magnitude to cover the loss."

Society members raised $50,000 in pledges to help buy the property, but Mr. Becker is reportedly asking more than three times that amount to cover what he has put into the it so far. The two houses he is building have asking prices of $284,900 and $294,900.

Society members contend the entire parcel is a cemetery and that bodies are buried throughout the property. The county contends that the burial grounds are restricted to certain areas.

Regardless, the administration should have resolved the issue before building permits were issued, council members said. The permits were issued within the last year. Now that they have been is sued, the county has no legal right to refuse construction, county lawyers say.

County and society officials are looking for some way to purchase the property. Mr. Ecker has said, however, that he will not use taxpayers money to do so.

Thursday, Mr. Gray wanted the council to pass a motion calling on Mr. Ecker to do exactly that. After the council refused a second time to consider his request, Mr. Gray left the meeting.

"I am astounded that the council would not go on record as expressing support," Mr. Gray said. "It's a comedy of errors."

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