Edgartown turns to eminent domain to expand cemetery: Martha's Vinyard Times (Vinyard Haven MA), 7/6/06

By Jesse Husid

Available land is precious and disappearing in Edgartown, for the living and for the dead. In fact, by one estimate, in 20 years Edgartown will run out of available burial space in town cemeteries.

Following a presentation by the Edgartown cemetery commission, on Monday Edgartown selectmen agreed to ask voters at a special town meeting on July 27 to take a 2.18-acre parcel of land adjacent to the New Westside Cemetery by eminent domain.

Alan Gowell, a member of the Edgartown cemetery commission and a memorial dealer, is intimately familiar with Edgartown's three cemeteries. That is why it came as quite a shock when he learned that the Edgartown United Methodist Church, which had inherited the parcel on Robinson Road adjacent to the New Westside Cemetery, had agreed to sell it to Paul Donovan, a Florida-based developer, without offering the property to the town.

The land is currently under agreement and Mr. Donovan has filed a four-lot subdivision plan with the Edgartown Planning Board.

According to Walter Bunge of Edgartown, treasurer of the Methodist Church and chairman of the committee responsible for selling the property, the parcel was listed openly last November and the town never made an offer.

At the Monday afternoon meeting, Mr. Gowell told the selectmen that the 56-year-old New Westside Cemetery is more than two-thirds sold, leaving what will most likely be less than 20 years worth of future cemetery land available. He said there are no more lots for sale at Edgartown's other three cemeteries: Westside Cemetery, Hilltop Cemetery at Chappaquiddick, and Old Town cemetery at Tower Hill. Taking the parcel he said would provide space for as many as 800 graves as well as a new and more attractive entryway.

Edgartown selectmen decided to let the voters have a say at the special town meeting. Following the presentation by Mr. Gowell, the selectmen agreed to place an article on the special town meeting warrant asking voters to authorize the selectmen to take the property by eminent domain. Mr. Gowell said the property is appraised at $1,550,000. A two-thirds vote would be required for approval.

If voters approve the taking, the purchase would be funded with $100,000 from the cemetery's sale of lots fund, and $400,000 from the Community Preservation Act (CPA) fund. The Edgartown Financial Advisory Committee has voted to recommend the purchase.

Currently covered with a tangle of vines and fallen trees and brush, the parcel lies between the New Westside Cemetery and the Edgartown Fire and Police Stations. It was owned by Mary Willey, an Edgartown School teacher who died in 1990. Ms. Willey left the property and buildings to the Edgartown Methodist Church with the provision that her son, Nathan, be allowed to live in the house. He died in 1994, clearing the way for a sale.

Reached by phone yesterday morning, Mr. Bunge said the town had not notified the Church about its intentions. "I still haven't heard from them on an official basis," said Mr. Bunge. "I was never officially notified about the town meeting."

Saying that it was the town that had been left in the dark, Mr. Gowell said the commission had expressed an interest in purchasing at least part of the property to the Church committee prior to hearing about the sale. "The Cemetery Committee was never apprised that the land was being offered for sale or I would have moved immediately," said Mr. Gowell.

Mr. Gowell said he met with Mr. Bunge this winter after hearing that that the Church had reached an agreement to sell the land to a developer. "I asked to be kept informed," said Mr. Gowell.

According to Mr. Gowell, the first deal fell through but he heard nothing from the church until there was another agreement.

"The next time I heard from the Church was after Mr. Donovan had an agreement to purchase the parcel," said Mr. Gowell. "They told me that the cemetery fence was 18 inches onto their property and asked if I would help." Mr. Gowell contacted Mr. Donovan to see if he would consider selling the parcel to the town for a modest profit. Mr. Donovan said he would not, according to Mr. Gowell.

Mr. Bunge said the reason the town was not contacted is that the church wanted to consummate a sale quickly because it needed the money. "Our committee felt the town wouldn't commit to the purchase," said Mr. Bunge. "This is a very small congregation and we needed to sell the land to make income. With the town, we thought it may take years to do that."

Mr. Gowell said he believes the closing has still not taken place and the parcel still belongs to the Church.

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