City closer to taking over cemetery

Published 6:10 pm Friday, October 21, 2011

City of Bainbridge officials said they are eager to work with people who have a vested interest in Pineview Cemetery, a historic cemetery off East College Street, as the city begins the process of condemning the property.

The city government is condemning the land parcel the cemetery is on, so that it can assume ownership and better maintain the cemetery, which has fallen into disrepair. The city is having to pursue a special process for condemning property because there is no clear owner and attorneys representing the city have been unable to find a title for the land, City Manager Chris Hobby said.

Because the cemetery is technically private property, City of Bainbridge employees are not really supposed to do work there — for liability reasons — although they have done so on occasion at the request of people concerned about natural overgrowth and litter, Hobby said.

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Several citizens spoke at Tuesday’s Bainbridge City Council meeting—some had questions about what the next steps would be, while others had concerns about whether the city’s planned acquistion of the cemetery would affect their family burial plots.

Answering concerns, Hobby said that once the city assumes ownership of the cemetery, it will need to determine the legal process for the method by which deeds for burial plots can be issued. For instance, because local funeral homes continue to bury people there, some who have relatives in the cemetery wish to be buried with their loved ones.

“The first order of business is to make records of who is buried where; we will need to physically check each plot,” Hobby said. “We will have to come up with rules to determine whether people have the legal right to be buried [in an empty plot]…we want that to be an inclusive process, incorporating the input of people who have a stake in the cemetery and using our existing cemetery rules as a basis.”

Citizens also asked the city to consider a system of marking off areas of the cemetery to help visitors determine where members of a certain family are buried. Many of the graves are marked with dates ranging back to the early 1900s and late 1800s. There are numerous armed forces veterans there, including at least one “Buffalo Soldier,” the nickname for African-American soldiers who fought in the U.S. Army’s 10th Calvary Regiment during the Indian Wars of the second half of the 1800s.

Discussion sparks disagreement

The discussion between Hobby, Mayor Edward Reynolds and citizens addressing the City Council on the issue was relatively calm, until a disagreement broke out over how the city has been doing its due diligence regarding identification of the cemetery’s rightful owner.

Local Attorney David Kendrick, who is assisting City Attorney Tom Conger in the condemnation process, said an exhaustive search has been done of courthouse records in an attempt to find a property title which would show a past or present owner. So far, there has been no success with that search, Kendrick said.

A woman who said she was one of the members of a defunct committee in charge of the cemetery’s upkeep said the late Jessie Guyton had given the cemetery to Thomas Bynes, a funeral home director. The woman said that Bynes gave the property to other local funeral home directors upon his retirement. In fact, both Bruton Mortuary and Guyton Brothers Funeral Home continue to bury people in Pineview Cemetery occasionally.

“We welcome anyone who has knowledge of a [property] deed to come forward,” Mayor Reynolds said. “We’re not trying to avoid the possible existence of a deed.”

Councilman Joe Sweet said city officials should be doing more to determine the cemetery’s owner.

“It’s a black cemetery; get black people involved with finding the deed,” Sweet said.

Sweet also complained about the installation of new playground equipment and fencing at the city’s College Street park, which abuts the cemetery. Sweet essentially said that if the city put a playground next to another cemetery such as Oak City Cemetery or fenced it off, people who had relatives buried there would be angry.

The College Street playground has existed since the 1950s, according to records. In addition, the cemetery has always had a rabbit-wire fence around it before the recent installation of wooden fencing, Hobby said.

After Sweet made the statement that he could not remember any discussion of Pineview Cemetery coming up before, Reynolds said Sweet was mistaken.

At its May 5, 2009, meeting, the council agreed to instruct the city attorney to begin the legal research necessary to condemn the cemetery. Sweet was present at the meeting, according to the meeting’s official minutes. Veteran Mike Hollaway also made a passionate plea for the city to clean up Pineview Cemetery at a council meeting in November 2010.