Residents of Turf Valley Overlook in Ellicott City learned yesterday afternoon that their fight to keep the St. Mary's Cemetery property in the heart of their neighborhood free from development is over.
The county wants to designate the heavily wooded, 3.2-acre property as open space and allow the owner to develop open space of equal value elsewhere in the community.
Residents, who formed the group Friends of St. Mary's Cemetery and Preservation Society, would maintain the cemetery. A preservationist group, such as the Maryland Historical Trust, would hold the deed.
County officials, residents and the developer have agreed in principle to the arrangement but still have to work out the details. The land swap also must receive approval of the County Council, which will not meet again until September. A majority of council members said yesterday they favor the plan.
"The concept is acceptable" to property owner H. Allen Becker of Ellicott City, "provided everyone moves quickly," said David A. Carney, Mr. Becker's attorney. "What is important is not what happens in September, but what happens now."
"We are cautiously optimistic," said Sandra Pezzoli, a resident and society board member who helped organize neighborhood opposition to development of the site.
Opposition has been steadfast for more than a year, but has been especially intense since Mr. Becker began clearing a portion of the site in late June to build two houses.
Residents objected, saying the entire site was a cemetery. But the county and developer contended the grave sites were located in opposite ends of the segregated cemetery.
The county hired an archaeologist to assure that no graves were disturbed in the middle area where the houses were being built. No graves were discovered, so the foundations for the two homes were laid.
Remains were unearthed July 20 when the county began excavating a utility line near the black section. Two days later, more bodies were found and all digging stopped.
Residents were joined by representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, charging that the county callously authorized the desecration of unmarked black graves. County Executive Charles I. Ecker agrees, saying he not only wanted the exchange of open space to occur, he wanted the cemetery restored and maintained, and the unearthed bodies reinterred there.
Residents were "overwhelmed" by the agreement, Ms. Pezzoli said, who, after learning the news, received a call from a descendant of an interred relative.
"She began with tears of frustration," Ms. Pezzoli said. "But as soon as I told her it was over, her crying turned to tears of joy."