Beyond the white picket fence in an Elkridge neighborhood lies a path to what will be a new development. The wooded area, destined to be the site of 42 new homes, conceals ghosts from the past.
“I came across this tombstone on top of the ground,” said Jason Van Kirk, the site developer and vice president of Elm Street Development.
Van Kirk notified the county about his discovery then brought in an archeologist to unearth the mysteries beneath the stone.
More markers were discovered along with 11 possible graves. Tiny pink flags were used to mark the final resting place of the first to have called the land home.
“Catherine, wife of Charles Reimensnider, and you can see the 1861 as the death date,” Van Kirk said.
Van Kirk encountered a similar scenario at a previous project and knew he had two options: build around the cemetery or petition to relocate the remains.
“In this case, I believe that the proper setting is in a professionally managed cemetery that provides for that maintenance in perpetuity,” said Van Kirk.
He provided written justification to the Howard County Planning Board stating that keeping the graves where they are denies reasonable use of his property. Building around them would potentially affect up to five lots.
Because of the site location, Van Kirk is required to provide 100-year storm attenuation reducing the developable portion of the property. There would also need to be a 30-foot buffer around the grave site.
Aside from monetary losses, Van Kirk is concerned about upkeep, which falls to the future homeowner's association (HOA).
“You have an HOA, its goals and desires are for the benefit of the community and its residents not necessarily for the cemetery and for the descendants of the cemetery and what is in their best interest,” Van Kirk said.
Van Kirk connected with two descendants of Charles Reimensnider. They expressed their wishes at a recent planning board hearing.
“When this journey first started, my first impression was preserve, preserve, preserve. And I got in touch with Jason, the developer, and my husband and I met him at the site and we said, ‘No. They need to reinterred and reunited with family at Zion cemetery,’” said Carolyn Reimsnyder-Sacker.
A third descendant was also at the meeting.
“I think digging up bodies is a messy business and all my other relatives are at Zion but in his will, as I stated before, he asked not to be removed from the property and he was there first,” said David Bruce Reimsnider.
In his Last Will and Testament of Georg Reimsnider, Reimsnider asked that “the cemetery on my farm wherein members of my family are interred shall never be sold, but reserved as a place of internment for members of my family.”
The planning board voted not to recommend the proposition but the planning director gets the final word.
“I think what the planning and zoning board is most worried about is if they start getting in the business of just carte blanche approving disinterment and reinterment each time a developer comes to them that we've again lost those natural resources. We've lost the historical foundation in some ways of our county,” said Elizabeth Larney, chair of the Howard County Cemetery Preservation Advisory Board. “I can take you on a tour of Howard County and show you many, many pockets of little cemeteries behind stores, which used to be homes, behind almost anything in the area.”
Larney is in charge of a family cemetery registry so generations to come can find their ancestors.
She wants homeowners to take pride in their piece of Howard County history, instead many of the properties are neglected.
St. Mary's Cemetery is one example of family cemetery forgotten by time and the people who live around it.
The site inspired the cemetery preservation law passed in 1993. It created a board and a process if a cemetery was discovered. The burial ground was designated as open space in an effort to preserve the history.
However, any visitor today would find vandalized stones, overgrowth, and overall disrepair. More than 100 people are reportedly buried in the labyrinth of overgrown cemetery grass and twisted tree limbs.
Larney described the condition of the cemetery as “shameful.” She’s disappointed that others don’t see the beauty beneath the weeds but with no law assigning accountability, homeowner's can choose to be hands-off the property.
“I think it is a weakness in the law. I think that there should be something in the law that says that they will help protect the area,” said Larney.
For her it also comes down to respect and respecting the final resting place of a person who had a family, a home, and a history there.
The complex issue also raises questions about whether hallowed ground can withstand the unrelenting march of time.
“They thought they would be buried there and that would be their final resting place. That is what most of us consider a cemetery to be is a final resting place, but unfortunately that doesn't always happen,” Larney said.
There is no disclosure requirement of developers to notify future homeowners about a cemetery in the neighborhood. Sometimes developers will include the information in the homeowner’s documents, but there's no law requiring the HOA to follow through on instructions or guidance pertaining to cemetery upkeep and maintenance.
As for the decision on the Elkridge property, Howard County Director of Planning and Zoning Valdis Lazdins told ABC2 that “a final decision has not been made whether to allow moving the remains, or requiring them to stay in place.” He added that they’ve been discussing options with the developer and nothing is resolved at this point.
There are several grants available to Howard County residents to maintain and clean-up local cemeteries. Anyone interested in the Howard County cemetery grant program should contact Beth Burgess, Resource Conservation Division, Chief, Department of Planning and Zoning at 410-313-4341 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on available grants, click here.