2017-09-15 / Community

City steps in to maintain cemetery

Ownership and long term care of Brown’s Hill Cemetery site still unclear
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Using a $70,000 gift from the Methodist Church, South Portland is poised to take over maintenance of Brown’s Hill Cemetery at the corner of Church Street and Broadway, a move some city officials fear could open the door to taking on other orphan cemeteries at public expense.

Led by Sharon Ward, members of the Brown’s Hill congregation had helped maintain the graveyard for decades, but by the time the church disbanded in 2013, it was down to eight members, with Ward, now 70, the youngest of the lot. The church building sold the following year to Union Lodge No. 3 of the International Order of Odd Fellows, after which Ward continued to manage maintenance of the adjacent burial grounds, using money given by the New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, located in Lawrence, Massachusetts. However, this year, those funds dried up, and the plots went unmowed, the grass growing as high as three feet tall before public outcry prompted the city to step in with a hired contractor.

Bernard Campbell, president of the board of trustees for the New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, said in a July 21 interview with the Sentry that the church was willing to make a one-time endowment to help foster creation of a cemetery board for Brown’s Hill, and had approached the South Portland Historical Society with check in hand. However, the church was not in a position to continue funding ongoing maintenance, Campbell said, because it does not actually own the site. It’s only paid the bills this long, he said, out of a moral obligation to do right by the families of those interred at Brown’s Hill.

“We have paid lawyers to check into that and we do not own it,” Campbell said. “What our investigation found is that apparently at some point in the far past there was a separate board of trustees on the cemetery that existed, because it received title to at least a portion of the property. But over time, that board went out of existence, failed to appoint successors, etc., and there is no entity that is in existence right now that has any kind of fiduciary obligation to maintain the cemetery.”

A search of the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds database shows that on Dec. 26, 1879, heirs of Samuel Haskell sold the lot at the corner of Church Street and Broadway, then known as Brown Street in that section, to the town of Cape Elizabeth, for $200 – a sum equal to more than $5,000 in 2017 dollars. South Portland and what is now known as Cape Elizabeth was one municipality under the latter name until 1895.

A decade earlier, Haskell had sold to the local Methodist congregation the lot where the church, built in 1869, now stands. However, there was a Methodist presence on Brown’s Hill as far back as the turn of the 19th century, and there is evidence of burials dating as far back as 1810. There is not evidence in the registry of deeds to indicate who owns the older sections of the cemetery, which account for about two-thirds of the 0.92-acre space.

However, the 15,930-square-foot area sold to city (still a town at the time) was conveyed by selectmen on Jan. 3, 1882 to a group known as the Trustees of Brown’s Hill Cemetery. The names of the trustees on the handwritten deed are hard to make out, but they appear to be Alonzo C. Chaplin, Henry Nutter (possibly Nutten), and Charles P. Cash. The deed is signed by the three Cape Elizabeth selectmen, Thomas B. Haskell, Stephen Scamman and Nathaniel Dyer, and the document notes the transfer was agreed to by voters at the annual town meeting on March 14, 1880, almost two years earlier.

The only other document found in the registry of deeds database that refers to the Brown’s Hill Cemetery Trustees is from May 29, 1882, in which the trustees sell a burial plot for $10.

Several other deeds refers to Trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church of Brown’s Hill, indicating, as Campbell claims, that the church and the cemetery were run by two distinct groups. However, there appears to have been some crossover as Henry Nutter is listed in 1871 as a church trustee.

Regardless of whatever happened to the cemetery trustees group, Campbell said the United Methodist Church is willing to help get a new board off the ground. The historical society rejected an endowment offer from the church given as a trade for accepting perpetual care of the site. Executive Director Kathryn DiPhilippo said the donation was not enough to sustain regular cemetery maintenance for long without soon becoming a routine part, and possible drain on, the society’s regular fundraising activities. Campbell said former city manager Jim Gailey rejected a similar offer made to the city, although Gailey did acknowledge in a 2013 email that the city is obligated under state law to maintain all veteran graves in abandoned cemeteries.

Meanwhile, the Odd Fellows agreed to pay a $1,500 cemetery maintenance bill as part of its July 2014 closing on the former church building, but the organization’s officers say that was as far as they were willing to go, with the balance funding dedicated to building renovations, member needs and other charitable works, while their manpower is limited.

With Ward unable find willing volunteers to form a new board of trustees, the site went untended this year, until City Manager Scott Morelli, alerted to the public concern, stepped in.

After authorizing maintenance for the balance of this year, Morelli set the city attorney on the hunt for proof of ownership. That search verified Campbell’s findings. In subsequent negotiations, the church tendered a new offer, with Campbell writing in a an Aug. 8 letter to Morelli that it would give $70,000 toward funding a “permanent endowment” for care of the facility.

“This payment would represent the fulfillment of our commitment to the former members of the First United Church community to perpetuate their prior ministry of support for the cemetery,” Campbell wrote.

“I don’t even want to get into ownership and all of that,” Morelli told the city council. “This obligates us to take their money and spend it on maintenance there. If the $70,000 runs out, we technically no longer have an obligation to them. But statutorily, if there is no one there still who is maintaining it, we still do.”

At a Sept. 11 workshop, the city council agreed to move to the question of accepting the donation to a future business meeting, with all five members present signaling their intent to vote in favor.

All five agreed with Morelli’s recommendation to begin using the funds to help offset staff or private contractor costs to maintain the cemetery, while the city will not pursue ownership of the cemetery.

The primary concern, however, was setting a precedent that could impact city budgeting down the road. Already, the city provides nearly $25,000 in cash and in-kind donations to the maintenance of four other cemeteries – Bay View, Calvary, Mount Pleasant and Highland Avenue.

“It is important to note that earlier this summer, I met with a representative from Bayview Cemetery, who requested assistance in finding members to join their board of trustees,” Morelli wrote in a memo to the council. “He noted that their trustees were aging out and unable to find others to step up. He felt that eventually there would be no more trustees and that this cemetery would also become the responsibility of the city.”

“I suspect there are other cemeteries in our community that are in a similar predicament, so Brown’s Hill could be just the beginning of those that will eventually fall to the city for maintenance,” Morelli write. “Thus, I would recommend that council also charge staff with coming back with a proposal, prior to next summer, to form a cemetery commission, who would assist our parks department in maintaining various cemeteries, especially Brown’s Hill. These commissioners could help find volunteers to perform work, help with fundraising efforts to mitigate any financial impact on taxpayers and assist with overall maintenance planning for these cemeteries. I have already had one resident approach me who is interested in serving in such a capacity.”

At the Sept. 11 meeting, several other potential maintenance projects were identified, including small cemeteries now privately maintained on Running Hill Road and behind the National Guard base on Western Avenue, as well as the city’s lone Jewish cemetery on Smith Street.

However, relying on a volunteer commission was viewed as a dead-end proposition by some.

“It’s hard to get volunteers even for something as exciting and action-packed as being a firefighter,” said planning board member Adrian Dowling. “Getting someone to stay the course for a long time maintaining grave sites, as important as that is, is going to be difficult. Let’s plan on that not really working out and find a way to deal with it at the city level with our staff.”

Councilor Susan Henderson thought a stickand carrot approach might do the trick.

“Volunteers can mow the grass. Not everything has to be paid for,” she said, “But maybe we can find a way to incentivize the position, like Ameri Corps or the Peace Corps, with college credit or something. Let’s rally volunteers to be graveyard cutters.”

Councilor Linda Cohen, on the other hand, took Dowling’s view, although she championed resisiting the outlay for as long as possible.

“Portland has been wanting to give us Forest City on Lincoln Street and the city has been saying, ‘No, thank you,’ for a long, long time, because it’s such a huge, huge amount of work (to maintain),” she said. “I see us going down a real slippery slope here, because if we start taking on cemeteries, we all of a sudden have responsibilities we never had before, and it’s not hiring someone to go in there once a year, it’s once a week, and that’s not even counting taking care of the headstones.

“As much as it would be great to get volunteers for these things, I just don’t think we can hang our hat on that,” Cohen said. “We are going to have to bite the bullet at some point. It seems like somewhere down the line we are going to have to put some money into the budget to cover these things, because existing staff is going to take it on. If we keep taking on all of these cemeteries and pocket parks and everything, the staff can’t handle it.”

Mayor Patti Smith, meanwhile, championed the commission approach, but suggested it attempt to drawn in other community organizations.

“I wish we could set up a cemetery commission to get ahead of this and figure out the best win-win for everybody involved. We just don’t have those answers right now,” she said. “There could be better synergy between this group and the historical society, and maybe better fundraising for all, potentially, because we are talking aligned goals.”

Return to top