Developer scrambles to relocate open graves

Developer scrambles to relocate open graves

December 3rd, 2009 by Matt Wilson and Kevin Hardy in News

Staff Photo by Dan Henry<br> Plastic sheeting covers an old cemetery at the 5900 block of Snow Hill Rd. where work has began clearing the land as seen from the Snow Hill road.<br> <a href="http://media.timesfreepress.com/docs/2009/12/Judgement_order_1203.pdf">PDF: Judgment order</a>

What's being called a communication breakdown among Hamilton County officials, the Chancery Court and a local developer has left century-old graves in Ooltewah out in the open with some questions as to where they will go.

"I don't know what they're going to do with the remains that's laying out there on top of the ground," Commissioner Bill Hullander said at Wednesday's commission meeting. "They don't have anywhere right now, in my opinion, to put them."

Morgan Construction is developing the property that includes the cemetery. Company President Jeff Morgan said the company will find a place for the remains if the planned site doesn't work.

"We will do whatever is necessary to come into compliance," he said.

The trouble is the place the developer planned to put the remains may be in an area where they're not allowed to put them.

Charles Sanger, the attorney who represents the landowners, said the company originally planned to relocate the 170 graves to a site about 100 yards away from their original location.

"All we're doing is relocating -- on the same piece of property -- some graves from an abandoned cemetery," he said. "And of course an access easement will be provided so that heirs can visit the new cemetery in accordance with state law."

Mr. Sanger said the most recent burials in the cemetery occurred in the late 1880s. After a lengthy process of public notices and hearings, only one or two heirs of the buried came forward, he said.

When the County Commission voted in 2002 to rezone the property -- four tracts on Snow Hill Road -- they imposed several conditions, one of which required a 50-foot natural buffer. At that time, the land had a different owner, Ooltewah Properties LLC.

County Building and Zoning Department Director Pat Payne said his office has issued a work-stop order against Morgan Construction for a portion of the site, because they cut down trees in that buffer area.

Barry Bennett, executive director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, said the act of cutting down those trees could nullify the company's commercial zoning and revert the property to an agricultural zone.

Mr. Morgan said his company is investigating exactly what the restrictions are and their effects. He said the resolution that set the restrictions was not part of the county's property records.

Mr. Morgan also said "everything that could be done in respect of the deceased will be done."

Still, Mr. Hullander said he and a number of Ooltewah residents are upset.

He said the developer should have to re-plant the trees in the buffer before starting up work again. Also, he suggested setting up a board that would inform developers of restrictions on property they buy.

In July, Hamilton County Chancellor Howell Peoples issued an order allowing property owner Shops at Mill Run General Partnerships to move the cemetery on grounds that the families of people buried there "failed to answer or otherwise respond in the time required by law" to notifications.

Court documents describe the planned relocated cemetery as starting from the "northeastern corner of the property" and covering about 3,000 square feet.