Cemetery development raises concerns

Published 11:12 pm Thursday, February 5, 2009


While expansion in Troy may be a positive sign to most, the Jones family is a bit skeptical.

“We are fine with houses being built here,” said Vallie Shipp, who showed up at the last Planning Commission meeting to protest Jones Cemetery development. “We just didn’t want the cemetery messed with.”

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After Hugh Wheelless allegedly built a playground and bathrooms into a portion of the land, members of the Jones family showed up at the Planning Commission to voice their opinions.

Planning Commission members told Shipp they would have to take legal action.

Now that might be the next step.

“All we’ve been told is to talk to a lawyer,” Shipp said.

And the family will not go down with out a fight.

According to Shipp, the land bought by Wheelless Development for the new Oak Park subdivision originally allotted the 150 year-old Jones Cemetery 1.01 acres.

“Every time this land has changed hands it had not included the cemetery,” said Catherine Lipeins, a member of the Jones family.

According to Lipeins, in the past when the land would change ownership that was always a provision in the deed that excluded the cemetery, which is what the current deed says.

While the family is upset because of the new playground and bathhouse Wheeless’ company developed, Wheelless’ attorney said it has had a positive effect on the site.

“We believe the action taken had resulted in a positive effect upon the cemetery site and the adjourning property,” said Attorney Allen Jones, who represents Wheeless.

“I believe, Mr. Wheelless’ intent was to restore and enhance an area containing graves so that the cemetery itself would be improved and more accessible to interested persons,” Jones said.

Though no lawsuit has been filed, legal discussions began last fall when the Alabama Historical Commission sent a letter to Wheelless stating that concerned citizens had contacted their office to inform them of recent development in Jones Cemetery near the Oak Park Development in Troy.

The letter referenced the 2003 statutory warranty deed in which Mary Gene Walter Ezell sold several parcels of land to Bar J. Enterprise LLC, but with the exception “one acre, more or less, for the Jones Cemetery.

The letter to Wheelless also cited that the historical commission had received two documents from Pike County Revenue Commissioner Curtis Blair regarding the Jones Cemetery, including an aerial photograph taken in 2006, which indicated the dimensions of the Jones Cemetery to be about one acre, and a 2008 property tax assessment, which indicated that Jones Cemetery was one acre and the land belonged to Jones Cemetery.

According to the letter, concerned residents had taken recent measurements of the cemetery and said that with the new measurements Jones Cemetery appeared to have been reduced to just one-tenth of an acre, and some said they were unable to find family members who are buried in the cemetery and had marked graves prior to the construction.

“Some of the markers are turned and have been moved,” Shipp said. “And Jones isn’t the only family listed on the tombstones.”

The letter asked Wheelless to give explanations of his company’s current claim of ownership, the methods used to clear the land, and what they did to ensure that graves, marked or unmarked were not disturbed or destroyed and to explain the justification of the current size of the cemetery.

But, according to Jones, the area containing graves together with the adjoining land had little or no access and the trees and growths in and among all of the graves was causing damage.

“Mr. Wheelless’ original intent was well-founded.”

“Due to the questions raised Mr. Wheeless has arranged for the archeological department at the University of Alabama to conduct a ground radar examination of the entire one-acre parcel, the majority of which contains no grave markers,” Jones said.

“It has been represented to Mr. Wheelless that this examination will conclusively determine whether or not cavities exist thereby indicating individual graves.”

Jones said the examination will hopefully take place within the next few weeks, and the results should aid all of the parties, including the Alabama Historical Commission in reaching a mutually satisfactory resolution.

Troy Mayor Jimmy Lunsford said, the state historical commission is requiring Wheelless to hire someone to determine if there are any graves anywhere else on the land.

“I don’t think he meant to disturb anything if he did, but that has yet to be determined,” Lunsford said.

Lunsford said if it is determined that something was disturbed; Wheelless will have to fix it.

Jones said Wheelless is making efforts to please everyone involved in the situation.

“I do know that Mr. Wheelless wants to do everything that he can in order to satisfy everyone involved, especially the family members of those buried there,” Jones said.