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Cemetery land swap plan hailed Residents, officials laud deal to halt development


County officials joined residents of Turf Valley Overlook in lauding a land-swap arrangement that will halt development of St. Mary's Cemetery and allow the owner to build elsewhere in the neighborhood.

"It's a great idea," said County Council Chairman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th. "It's exactly what I had proposed as a concept" for preserving other cemeteries in the county. "I give [the administration] a lot of credit for making it work with this one."

Mr. Farragut was referring to County Executive Charles I. Ecker's proposal this week that the county take open space land of equal value in Turf Valley Overlook and exchange it for the 3.2-acre cemetery property.

Details of the agreement still have to be worked out, but in general, the arrangement calls for these things:

* No more digging on the cemetery property. Construction stopped July 22 when a backhoe unearthed three or more bodies while excavating a water and sewer easement.

* Reinterment of bodies unearthed July 20 and 22 and restoration of the cemetery property to the condition that existed prior to laying foundations of two houses there.

* Maintenance of the cemetery by a group of residents called the Friends of St. Mary's Cemetery and Preservation Society. A preservationist group such as the Maryland Historical Trust will hold the deed.

* Ceding of the property to the county by owner H. Allen Becker in exchange for developable lots of equal value elsewhere in the neighborhood.

"It's a very decent option," said Darrel Drown, R-2nd, who represents the neighborhood on the County Council. "I wanted to find something that would help the people in the community and this seems like a reasonable alternative. I'm hoping we can work it out."

Before the deal can be completed, the County Council must agree to the swap, the cemetery society membership must vote to maintain the property and a preservationist group must agree to accept title to the property.

Sandra Pezzoli, a resident and society member who spearheaded the drive to preserve the cemetery, said she does not foresee any difficulty getting the society membership to agree to maintain the property.

She said the group will meet next Wednesday to discuss setting up a fund for perpetual care. Some of the property would be left in its natural state, she said. Other portions would be manicured. She said one of the society members, Yvonne Hope German, is a gardener who has relatives in the cemetery. Ms. German is eager to begin landscaping, Ms. Pezzoli said.

Mr. Ecker and Mr. Drown met with Ms. Pezzoli and Ms. German on Saturday to discover if the administration's proposal would put an end to the intense, six-week battle between residents, the property owner and county officials over the fate of the cemetery.

Ms. Pezzoli said she and Ms. German were overwhelmed when Mr. Ecker shared his proposal. When other society members and an NAACP representative learned of the plan Monday, they also appreciated the idea.

"We are extremely pleased," said Alphonso McGlen, public relations officer for the NAACP. "This has worked out for &L; everybody. It was a long, and ongoing process, but confidence has been restored in the county administration."

Mr. McGlen said the NAACP "is willing to be part of the maintenance team." The bodies unearthed July 20 and 22 were in the black portion of the segregated cemetery.

"I am delighted that we are at the beginning of a solution to the problem," said Kathy Rebec, a Turf Valley Overlook resident and society member.

"We are elated and truly excited. It's a good solution for everybody. We have to work now to change the law so this won't happen again."

Councilman C. Vernon Gray, D-4th, said he was "very pleased to see the shovel brigade has finally arrived at the administration's door-step."

Mr. Gray, whom society members credit with advising and supporting them "from day one," said that "preserving this cultural, historical and communal legacy should have been a priority from the beginning."

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