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May 09, 2012

City Council agrees to sell Oakwood Cemetery expansion area

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DailyProgressBy Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Charlottesville City Council has agreed to sell two parcels of land next to Oakwood Cemetery for development, despite the pleas of one resident who wanted the land to be reserved for future burials. The land was acquired in 1944 and 1957 for the cemetery.
 
“Without ever addressing the subject directly, you have tonight formally closed down this entire community’s public cemetery system,” said city resident Antoinette Roades.
 
Oakwood-map
The parcels shaded in blue are the two that the city sold to Southern Development. 
In mid-April, the council heard the first reading of a proposal to sell 3.5 acres to Southern Development for $10. The firm has proposed to build a mixed-income community of 47 units in a partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Charlottesville-Albemarle. 
 
The price of the land was set low because the city used the land to bury construction debris for many years.
 
“We can’t pin down when, but at some point the city started landfilling [there],” said Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of neighborhood development services
 
Tolbert said if the city wanted to use the land for any reason, it would have to pay at least half a million dollars to clean construction debris from the site. As part of the sale, Southern Development will assume the clean-up cost. 
 
The staff report for the council’s first discussion of the land stated the property was “near” the cemetery. Roades, who has six relatives buried at Oakwood, said in an email to the council that was inaccurate. 
 
“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,” Roades wrote. 
 
The city owns both Maplewood Cemetery and Oakwood Cemetery. Both were established in the 19th century and are now closed to new burial sites. 
 
In the 20th century, the city council made two land acquisitions next to the cemetery to provide for expansion to Oakwood. 
 
“City officials of 1944 and 1957 obviously considered providing sufficient public burying ground to be a significant responsibility,” Roades said. 
 
Roades said the land should be kept in order to provide more cemetery space for low-income families. She also said historians of the future will be deprived of important anthropological data.
 
“The natural flow of burials that makes our public cemeteries particularly valuable three-dimensional family albums and museums of local history has been cut off,” Roades said. 
 
Tolbert did not dispute that the land bought in 1944 had been purchased to be a cemetery, but he said the purpose of the 1957 land was not entirely clear. 
 
“There’s a newspaper article that [says that it was for the cemetery]… but the deeds do not mention the cemetery at all,” Tolbert said. “They both say [the land is] not encumbered in any way.” 
 
Tolbert said the council was asked in 2009 if they wanted to pursue residential development of the land. 
 
“We discussed the issue of [whether] we needed cemetery land… also the option was looked at for this land as maybe additional soccer fields,” Tolbert said. “Council said, ‘Let’s move forward with development’ at the time.”
 
Dede Smith said she was concerned that the Habitat/Southern project would concentrate too many low-income residents in one place. 
At least 20 of the units will be deemed as affordable, meaning they will be sold to residents with annual incomes of 80 percent or lower of the area median income
 
“This is a new infusion of people onto the side of our city that has borne the greatest number of families living in poverty,” Smith said. 
Council voted 4-1 to approve the sale with Smith voting against it. 
 
“I think it’s a great project, but it’s just in the wrong place,” Smith said.
 
“It’s the place we have, though,” said Mayor Satyendra Huja
 
At the conclusion of the meeting, the council said they would look into the possibility of purchasing more land for cemetery use.
 

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