(Note: This is an open letter to Charlottesville City Council from guest editorialist Antoinette W. Roades)
To: Members of Charlottesville City Council
From: Antoinette W. Roades
Date: 1 May 2012
Re: Your plan to give away 20 percent of Oakwood Cemetery
Given City practice over the last few years, what you are poised to do on 7 May could appear unremarkable. Again and again, you have given favor to Charlie Armstrong. And more and more, you have made only slight pretence of public process in proceeding with whatever you have already decided to do. (N.B. I can find no one who knew anything of a year-ago charette cited as neighborhood endorsement of development on the property involved. But even had my neighbors and I taken part in such a thing, we would not consider as endorsement a discussion of hypothetical projects between self-selected participants to constitute public process under law.) However, on brief investigation — the only sort of investigation possible given your unseemly rush to deliver the City’s latest gift — it becomes clear that the current situation is remarkable. It is remarkable because of the wrongs that have already been done. It is remarkable because of the wrongs that will be done if you persist.
Most recent among the wrongs done has been the misrepresentation of this property to the public and the press. And perhaps to you as well? It has been described as a problematic piece of land the City just happens to own “near Oakwood cemetery,” a piece with which something has long needed to be done, a dump worthy only of giveaway to what Councilors deem a worthy “vision” (albeit a “vision” even its submitter calls only conceptual). In fact, the property — which carries an assessed value of $370,700 despite its alleged worthlessness — is part of Oakwood cemetery, a part made up of public land purchased systematically by public officials with public money for the public purpose of expanding the City’s otherwise limited public cemetery space. And further inquiry reveals that this public land in a public cemetery should have been opened long ere now to the burials for which it was purchased. As for its being degraded in any degree, inquiry reveals that any such degradation is the direct and deplorable result not just of City neglect, but of active City abuse.
Our larger community — that is, both the City of Charlottesville and County of Albemarle — has only two public cemeteries, Maplewood and Oakwood, both of which lie in the City and fall under the jurisdiction of the Parks and Recreation Department. Both cemeteries were established in the 19th century — Maplewood earlier, Oakwood later. By the early 20th century, Maplewood was hemmed in by streets and residences that left it no potential for expansion. Oakwood, however, had potential for expansion, potential recognized by two sets of far-sighted and responsible City officials who secured additional land via two transactions.
By deed of 13 October 1944 (Charlottesville Deed Book 118, page 191; plat in CDB 20, page 289), the City acquired what is now Tax Parcel 29-266. Then, by deed of 29 March 1957 (CDB 198, page 61; plat in CDB 92, page 124), the City acquired what is now Tax Parcel 29-272.1. Both purchases reflect deliberation. Both occurred in difficult times when seemingly more important matters could claim public officials’ attention. The first occurred during World War II. The second occurred during the conflict over school desegregation. But as the deeds and related documents show, both occurred as soon as the property in question became available because of changes within the Gleason family, long residents of Ridge Street. (Note: The apparently low prices that the always public-spirited Gleasons set on their land further suggest that they were supportive of the purpose for which the City was making the purchase — yet another reason to honor that purpose.)
City officials of 1944 and 1957 obviously considered providing sufficient public burying ground to be a significant responsibility. Even that long ago, they foresaw a time when the burial capacity in the City cemeteries as then bounded would be exceeded. And documents show that at least some of those officials’ successors understood their intention and the property’s dedication. Two such items are attached. One is a Charlottesville map of 1963 published by National Bank but based, of course, on official surveys. It shows Oakwood’s boundaries inclusive of the parcels you are poised to give away. The other is a City Planning Department map of 1979 that projects land use for 1990. It also shows Oakwood inclusive of those two parcels. (The color blue denotes public use.) And I would add on an anecdotal note that no one I have raised this matter with — including former City Councilors — ever thought that the open land immediately west of Oakwood’s westernmost drive was anything but part of the cemetery.
Today, Maplewood appears to be full, and inquiry reveals that it is, in fact, “closed” because all available plots have been purchased. Indeed, it turns out that all its plots had been purchased by at least 20 years ago. Oakwood appears to have space remaining even east of its westernmost drive. In fact, however, it is also considered “closed” because all available plots east of Tax Parcels 29-266 and 29-272.1 have been purchased. But Oakwood should not be closed because Oakwood has more space — three-and-a-half acres more space that should have been opened for burials at least ten years ago if not earlier.
Instead of opening the land for the purpose for which it was purchased and needed, however, City officials allowed it to become a dumping site — that is, an illegal landfill — for assorted detritus hauled by City workers at the direction of City supervisors. That detritus, according to Jim Tolbert, has accumulated to a depth as measured by core samples of 20 feet. (Of course, any private landowner who had done the same thing at the same time would have been required to clean the property up under penalty of law. Failure to do so could have netted a fine, jail time, or both.)
The repercussions of the City’s failures in regard to Oakwood vary. At a personal level, families of limited means who have needed public cemetery burial as well as families that may have considered Oakwood their traditional burial site have been forced to go not only elsewhere but onto the commercial cemetery market. At a community level, the natural flow of burials that makes of public cemeteries particularly valuable three-dimensional family albums and museums of local history has been cut off. And at a humanitarian level, the centuries-old community practice of providing burial ground for indigents, unknowns, and other unfortunates has been abandoned leaving a matter of civic compassion to the charity of churches.
The City’s official webpage for Oakwood says: “Oakwood Cemetery has been Charlottesville’s primary public cemetery since the latter half of the 19th century when Maplewood Cemetery began to reach its maximum capacity. It was also the primary burying ground for the poor and indigent. The first recorded indigent burial took place there in February of 1883 — that of “Sophie Shepherd’s child,” a local pauper. The cemetery still has a ‘Potter’s Field,’ a colloquial term for cemeteries used for individual burials of the poor. Such cemeteries, or sections of cemeteries, have existed throughout history as places for those who could not afford a grave or family vault.”
But the cemetery does not still have a Potters Field and has not had one for some time. So the statement on the City’s official website is untrue. (Note: This means among other things that should a resident of The Crossing or a client of The Haven die without means for private burial in a private cemetery — an event that can easily be foreseen — that person will again be homeless, something that would not have happened before Oakwood was declared “closed.”)
When I began this hurried inquiry, I thought the current situation might be attributed to mere reprehensible carelessness. During the time the Oakwood additions were made, public officials focused on being good stewards of public resources and providing basic amenities to the citizenry. However, in the last couple of decades, public officials have focused more and more on imposing on the citizenry the latest fads in politics and planning and providing public resources to private interests. Also, because the deaths of individuals rarely become public matters, the City’s failure to open the additional public burial space already provided for might easily elude public notice.
In the last couple of days, however, I have learned that employees of at least two (and probably three) City departments saw this situation developing and made their concerns known. And I have been told that at least some of those concerns were conveyed to City Council. So I am now forced to attribute the current situation to systemic incompetence, serial hypocrisy (vis-à-vis civic compassion), and calculated misrepresentation.
An analogy comes to mind — that is, declaring South Fork Reservoir worthless because silt that should have been dredged as a matter of course reduced its capacity below that for which it was designed. For the two situations to be truly analogous, however, City workers acting at their supervisors’ direction would also have to have dumped into the reservoir tons of debris rendering even the water it can hold unusable.
Were blame to be assessed in this case at this moment, several generations of officials and employees would have to share it. But if you persist in giving 20 percent of the City’s public Oakwood Cemetery to Charlie Armstrong — who, of course, has shown unconscionable contempt for Hawkins family remains on the Ridge-Cherry property, contempt reinforced by the City Attorney’s directive to officials not to acknowledge the issue even for discussion — you will assume as entirely your own the blame for permanent denial of access by this community’s needy families, indigents, et al., to a basic amenity that your far-sighted predecessors acted to secure to them.
In my opinion, you have no legal right to do as you plan. If you persist you should be taken to court. I do hope, however, that you respond instead to the civic-minded ghosts of Charlottesville’s past — just the sort we should be honoring on the City’s 250th birthday — by restoring to current and future members of this community what already belongs to them.
Please do that. Thank you.