Bibb commissioners to consider abandoned cemetery rules

The Bibb County Commission may soon consider adopting regulations that would dictate how abandoned cemeteries may be disturbed.

The rules — which the state already has in place and the county can choose to adopt — would create a permitting and notification process for the disruption or removal of a cemetery or burial grounds.

Opting into the regulations would fulfill several purposes, said Commissioner Lonzy Edwards, who supports the regulations. Those regulations outline for developers what needs to be done when an abandoned cemetery is discovered. They also would ensure that remains are removed in a respectful manner and provide for better planning in the future, Edwards said.

“I hate to see cemeteries disturbed, but you’ve got roads needing to be built (and) developers,” he said. “People have a right to use their property.”

The state statute, known as the Abandoned Cemeteries Act, requires a permit to develop land where a cemetery is located. The application for such a permit includes evidence of ownership of the land, an archaeologist’s report, a genealogist’s plan for identifying and notifying descendants and a proposal for mitigation of the development’s effects on the cemetery. If the proposal includes the relocation of human remains or burial objects, it should specify how they would be relocated, according to the act.

Following the notification of descendants, a public hearing would be held before the county would decide whether to issue a permit.

The applicant or the descendants may appeal the decision.

A fee of up to $2,500 may be charged for the permit, according to the act.

Currently, the county has no method of regulating abandoned cemeteries, said County Attorney Virgil Adams, who is looking into the issue.

Edwards said he would like the county to find some method for identifying abandoned cemeteries.

“Part of the problem that I’m trying to address is we don’t know where these things are because they’ve been totally unregulated for a period of time,” said Edwards, who last year pushed forward an ordinance regulating where cemeteries may be built. “When they all of the sudden show up in the path of progress, you have the expense and difficulty of getting it removed.”

Regulating the disruption of abandoned cemeteries is needed, said Hugh Matternes, a mortuary archaeologist with New South Associates.

New South, a Stone Mountain-based cultural resource consulting firm, currently is working with the state Department of Transportation to move a small cemetery of unmarked graves found in the path of the Sardis Church Road extension in south Bibb County.

“There are situations that are out there that develop where less scrupulous developers and other construction agencies can find ways around having to do anything responsible with the cemetery,” Matternes said. “The laws that are out there are designed to protect the cemeteries.”

Cemeteries have historical significance and tell us about the people who lived in these areas, he said.

“There’s an enormous wealth of information out there,” Matternes said.

The laws also help developers know what to expect when they come across an abandoned cemetery, he said.

“The developer knows up front the whole story of what’s going to be involved in this, and he’s not suddenly stuck,” he said.

Edwards has brought up the issue in passing before, but the recent discovery of the south Bibb cemetery brought it to the forefront.

Little is known about the cemetery, except that it may date back to the early 1800s and contain eight to two dozen “nineteenth-century African-American burials,” according to the state DOT.

Transportation officials have said they plan to move the remains to a local cemetery.

“We’ve had over the last, I don’t know how long, a proliferation of cemeteries across the county, and we keep being reminded of that almost every time there’s a major development of some sort, especially in south Bibb,” Edwards said.

Last year, a Bibb County Superior Court judge ordered the removal of Civil War-era grave sites at the location of a planned 1,000-acre residential and commercial development off Hartley Bridge Road.

Descendants of the three buried men argued against the moving of their graves, but the judge ruled that by petitioning the state to do so, the developers had followed the law.

To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 744-4345.