2017-08-11 / Community

Officials make call on Brown’s Hill Cemetery

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – Following a title search, South Portland officials have determined that it does not own the Brown’s Hill Cemetery at the corner of Broadway and Church Street, but will nonetheless continue maintenance of the site through this season, and cover the care of veterans’ graves thereafter, while it works to form a new board of trustees to oversee the property.

The adjoining Methodist Church disbanded in 2014 with just eight members left in its congregation, and sold the building to the a chapter of the International Order of Odd Fellows. The parent organization of the church paid for subsequent maintenance but determined that it also does not own the graveyard, and this past year grass around the plots, which includes graves of veterans that date from the War of 1812 to World War II, grew as high as four feet tall, causing concern among neighbors and passers-by.

In an Aug. 3 email, Morelli said the title search turned out to be “inconclusive” for the majority of the 0.92-acre cemetery, with no existing records to prove ownership. A church is believed to have been on the site as early as 1806 and the earliest readable headstone date is 1810. However, Morelli wrote that the newer section of the cemetery, measuring 0.37 acres closest to Church Street, did sell to Cape Elizabeth in 1879 (South Portland did not come into existence until 1895). The town then sold the plots to a group known as the Trustees of Brown’s Hill Cemetery in 1882. That group appears to have died out by the mid 20th century, at least, as none of the surviving Methodist congregants was aware of any such group.

Although it is unknown if anyone serves as the successor trustees of the cemetery, City Attorney Sally Daggett said, “Maine trust law provides that a trust does not fail for want of a successor. In other words, the Trustees of Brown’s Hill Cemetery are still the owner of the newer part of the cemetery, and if any person or entity wanted to transact business with the trust, they would first have to go to probate court or superior court to have successor trustees appointed.”

Maine law compels municipalities to maintain veterans’ graves, as well as so called “ancient burial grounds” – private cemeteries created before 1880 – from May to September.

Morelli wrote that he plans to meet with representatives of North East Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, which, while to has no legal obligation, has offered an undisclosed lump sum of dollars to help establish a new trustee's group for the Brown’s Hill Cemetery.

“Since we are obligated to begin maintaining this site, I will be meeting with (church representatives) to discuss them making the financial donation to the city instead, so that we can at least cover these new maintenance costs for a while,” Morelli wrote. “We can then begin to explore options, such as creating a city cemetery commission to oversee any cemeteries we fall into the ownership of. Such a group could help to coordinate fundraising and volunteer efforts to keep the cemeteries maintained, to help lessen the burden on property taxes and city staff.”

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