The Howard County Council last night enacted a tough cemetery preservation law that will require developers to preserve burial grounds as open space.
"This shows we care about cemeteries and the history therein," said Councilman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, sponsor of the bill, which takes effect in 30 days. "What is particularly important is that it offers a process for dealing with human remains discovered during excavation or grading."
The lack of such a policy led residents of Turf Valley Overlook in Ellicott City to wage a three-year battle to preserve old St. Mary's Cemetery in the heart of their neighborhood.
Residents had insisted that the entire portion of a heavily wooded 3.2-acre lot in the middle of their neighborhood was the burial ground for St. Mary's Cemetery. The county argued that only a portion of the property was a cemetery and allowed the remainder to be developed.
Development stopped last July, however, when bodies were unearthed during excavation for a sewer line. Seven months later, the county accepted the cemetery as open space and gave the developer lots elsewhere.
Mr. Gray's bill will halt development immediately whenever human remains are discovered. If the county determines that the site is a cemetery, the county will seek to determine the boundaries of the cemetery and the area will be preserved as open space in the development.
The bill also calls for the Department of Planning and Zoning to make an inventory of existing cemeteries in cooperation with a seven-member cemetery preservation advisory board created under the bill.
All inventoried cemeteries will be preserved as open space under the bill. Property that once served as a cemetery, but from which the bodies have been removed, will also be preserved as open space.
Councilman Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, said that although he was voting for the bill, he thought it might cause some people to not report human remains found on their property for fear that a developer might not buy the property from them.
In other action last night, the council reached a compromise on a personnel proposal that had pitted Democrats against Republicans.
Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, said that "in the interest of healing," she would accept a compromise from Councilman Darrel Drown, R-2nd, that would raise the pay grade of council legislative assistants and make them career employees.
Except for the pay raise, Mr. Drown's proposal would not apply to two council legislative assistants who are appointees but who could apply for career status.