2017-07-21 / Front Page

Brown’s Hill grave maintenance at issue

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Headstones and veterans markers are overgrown with weeds at Brown's Hill Cemetery, located at 1257 Broadway in South Portland. Although state law compels the city to maintain private graveyards established before 1880, there has been no site maintenance since closure of the adjacent Methodist church in 2013, other than incidental work done by volunteers and abutting landowners. (Duke Harrington photo) Headstones and veterans markers are overgrown with weeds at Brown's Hill Cemetery, located at 1257 Broadway in South Portland. Although state law compels the city to maintain private graveyards established before 1880, there has been no site maintenance since closure of the adjacent Methodist church in 2013, other than incidental work done by volunteers and abutting landowners. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — It’s not often that the American Legion gets heckled when placing flags on the graves of their fallen comrades, but according to Fred Stewart, that’s just what happened this past Memorial Day at Brown’s Hill Cemetery, at the corner of Broadway and Church Street in South Portland.

In the middle of services conducted by the South Portland War Veterans Memorial Association, which consists of V.F.W. Post 832 and American Legion Post 35, the man leaned over the fence and had his say.

“He was rather upset about the condition of the cemetery,” Stewart said, in a July 18 interview at the 0.95-acre cemetery, where weeds towered over some tombstones by several feet.

The prevailing opinion seemed to be that the cemetery maintenance should be the job of Unity Lodge No. 3 of the International Order of Odd Fellows, owners of the former Methodist church next to the graveyard.

But Stewart, who is also treasurer for the Odd Fellows, said that’s really not in the cards.

“Everybody is talking about the cemetery across the whole city, but nobody wants to do anything about it,” Stewart said. “And so we’ve been cast in a bad light by the whole thing. It’s guilt by association – ‘You guys own the building so you own the cemetery’ – but we don’t.”

In 2013, members of First United Methodist Church of South Portland voted to close up shop and go their separate ways. In an interview that August, church historian Sharon Ward said while services had been held on Brown’s Hill since 1803, with sermons once delivered to more than 500 parishioners, membership dwindled to the point where people using the church for meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous outnumbered the Sunday congregation five-to-one.

In July 2014, the New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, which owned the church building, sold it to the Oddfellows for $175,000. The deed states the church only conveyed the 0.71-acre lot located between the cemetery and Ridgeland Avenue.

And so the question, asked more frequently in recent weeks, becomes, what entity owns the cemetery and who will maintain the 32 veteran graves located there?

According to a Works Progress Administration map made of the cemetery dated sometime between 1935 and 1939, and housed in the Maine State Archives, Brown’s Hill Cemetery served as the final resting place for 28 soldiers of the Civil War, as well as two from World War I (listed on the map as simply, the World War), along with one, each, from the Spanish-American War and War of 1812. Ward conducted a survey of headstones in 1999 and has said the earliest readable marker in the cemetery dates to 1810.

In addition to the soldiers, there are a few notable names interred at Brown’s Hill.

In a 2013 interview held when the church closed, Kathryn DiPhilippo, executive director of South Portland Historical Society, said Brown’s Hill is believed to be the final resting place of George and Andrew Cash, from whom nearby Cash Corner derived its name, thanks to businesses each owned there, which grew over time from peddler’s carts to full-fledged stores.

Several online reSourses also claim Brown’s Hill is the burial site of Charles and Mary Peary, the parents of Rear Admiral Robert Peary, credited with being the first man to reach the North Pole, in 1909.

Still, Stewart said the Odd Fellows are not in a position to take on cemetery maintenance, at least some of which was reportedly done over the past two years by local Boy Scouts. Scouts have not returned this year and what little mowing has occurred was undertaken by abutting neighbors on Whitehall Avenue and Broadway.

“We don’t want to be mean about it. We’re not trying to be mean. We just don’t want to inherit a problem because we’ve got problems of our own,” Stewart said on behalf of the Odd Fellows. “People think we should take it over because they think we are a service organization like the Kiwanis, or the Rotary. But the Odd Fellows is a fraternal organization. There’s a difference.

“The IRS spells it out,” Stewart said. “We’re here for the benefit of our members, and if we don’t take care of our members, we can lose our nonprofit status. We do, do things. We hold a Halloween party every year for local kids, and we send kids to (Camp Northeast Odd Fellows Association) in Liberty. This year we paid to send 20 campers at $300 a piece. But we are primarily an organization to benefit our members. So, say we have a member who needS assistance, if we were to say, oh, he ran out of oil, that’s his own problem, the IRS could look at that and say, hey, you didn’t take care of that, but you spent a lot of money taking care of this cemetery.”

Stewart also said a good deal of the organization’s bank is earmarked to a building renovation project. As soon as a contractor can be found qualified and willing to deal with lead paint, what remains of the rotting church steeple will be taken down and rebuilt to the roofline of the main building.

With the Odd Fellows out, former City Councilor Michael Pock started to sound the alarm. As a member of the American Legion, Pock was concerned about the lack of grave maintenance – a job he said should fall to the city, given uncertainty over what entity owns the cemetery. He sent an email June 13 to all members of the city council.

“Who owns the cemetery?” Pock asked. “What is being done about maintenance? When will the maintenance start? Where has the money gone to maintain those graves and others? And finally, why hasn’t something been done?”

As of Tuesday, Pock said he had yet to hear from any member of the council.

The earliest document available on the online database of the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds referencing the church dates to July 18, 1867. That’s when the Methodist Episcopal Society and Church, as it was then known, bought the church lot from abutting landowner Samuel Haskell for $1, with the deeded condition that it build and maintain a meeting house on the lot. However, even then the cemetery was a separate lot, as the Haskell deed mentions the “graveyard fence” as one of the boundary lines.

According to Ward, 1867 is when the church building was built. It held its first service the following year. All records that pertain to ownership of the cemetery, however, were destroyed in the Great Portland Fire of 1866.

The cemetery is listed in the city database with an address of 1257 Broadway, with the notation “owner unknown.” However, the owner’s mailing address is given as the Odd Fellows’ hall next door. Stewart said that’s resulted in the Odd Fellows getting notices from the planning board when things happen on nearby properties.

“Why would you address such a notice to us?” Stewart asked with a laugh. “Worse, why would you send a notice to a ‘cemetery owner unknown?’ Who’s the dead person that’s going to open that mail?”

City Assessor Jim Thomas said Tuesday the Richland Avenue mailing address has been on file since at least 2006, when the church was still assuming responsibility for the cemetery. As to what entity owns it, that’s a question mark.

“Cemeteries are non-taxable properties,” Thomas said. “As such, it’s an entity that we don’t spend a lot of time analyzing. It’s very rare that we would actually have to do a title or deed search anyway.”

In 2013, Ward met with then City Manager Jim Gailey, but he was unwilling to have public works take on regular care of the cemetery after the church shut down.

“By state statute, the city is responsible for veterans graves,” Gailey said in a subsequent email. “But it would not be in the city’s best interest to take over the annual maintenance of the entire cemetery, a cemetery that is full, with no revenue or endowment to offset the city’s annual costs.”

However, despite Gailey’s acknowledgement of city responsibility for the veteran graves, it does not appear any maintenance was done.

In responding to Pock, current City Manager Scott Morelli said state law compels municipalities to care for “ancient burial grounds” – that is, private cemeteries established before 1880.

“For all other cemeteries, the law requires that either the cemetery corporation/association or the municipality maintain veteran graves in ‘good condition and repair from May 1 to Sept. 30 of each year,’” Morelli wrote.

The city currently partners with cemetery associations at four locations. At Bay View, Calvary and Mount Pleasant cemeteries, the city makes an annual donation as part of the parks and recreation department budget. For the fiscal year that ended June 30, South Portland gave $460, $11,559, and $8,243 to the three cemeteries, respectively. At Highland Avenue Cemetery the public works department “provides some in-kind labor in lieu of financial assistance,” according to Morelli.

Morelli said the city also pays for the flags placed on veteran graves by the South Portland War Veterans Memorial Association. Morelli said in a July 13 email that he has asked Code Officer Matt LeConte to track down who owns the cemetery, “so we can notify them of the need to maintain the property.” “If the owner cannot be located and/or they refuse to maintain it, the law states that we must do so or be subject to a $100 fine,” Morelli said. “I don’t have a crystal ball but if I did, I am sure it would show that this won’t be the last such cemetery to be remanded to us. As cemeteries fill up and run out of money and volunteers, they will ultimately become the burden of the property taxpayers to maintain.”

LeConte could not be reached for comment.

Although Pock had referenced in his email a belief that the city gets some funds from the state to maintain veteransgraves, Morelli said that was not true. And, while it might be easy to say the city dropped the ball on its duty to at least care for the veteran graves in Brown’s Hill, Morelli said he anticipates LeConte’s review will trace the cemetery ownership to the New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, as successor organization to the original Methodist Episcopal Society and Church.

Church officials appear to think so, too.

When it came time to close on the church building sale, Stewart said, the Massachusetts-based parent organization presented the Odd Fellows with a $1,500 bill for cemetery maintenance for that year.

“We didn’t want to delay the closing to dicker over that, so we just said, yeah, whatever, we’ll pay it,” Stewart said. “But that in now way conveyed the actual ownership to us.”

According to Pock, who is on the historical society board of trustees, the New England Annual Conference then approached the society to see if it was interested in taking on the cemetery, but it declined.

“We were approached by a law firm representing the Methodist Conference, asking if we would maintain the cemetery and offering a one-time donation if we would agree to sign a contract stating that we would be responsible for the cemetery maintenance, in perpetuity,” DiPhilippo wrote in a July 13 email. “It was our opinion that the money offered was not sufficient to have us take on that responsibility. Principal would have to be drawn upon to pay for annual maintenance costs and eventually, the money would run out. Our historical society works hard to sustain its current operation and services; we don’t have excess funding available to take on cemetery maintenance.”

Meanwhile, those who live or own property near Brown’s Hill say it’s time for the city to step up, to care for the entire cemetery, not just the veterans graves.

Nearby resident Mac McIntire on July 18 said he had called city hall just the day before to complain about the condition of the cemetery.

“I have no problem with the city taking that on,” he said. “If they don’t know who owns it, so what. It’s a community cemetery. I understand there isn’t time and money enough to do everything in the world, but have a little respect.

“If the city can set aside more than $750,000 for a lawsuit, to defend an ordinance the people voted against and said they didn’t even want, I think it can swing $1,500 a year to mow this thing,” he said, referring to an ongoing court case with Portland Pipe Line Corp over South Portland’s Clear SkiEs Ordinance that banned tar sands oil from local ports.

One person who lives next to the cemetery said her husband is one of at least two people who has mowed Brown’s Hill this season.

“It was Memorial Day and the grass was about four feet high,” said Carol Kokoska. “It was disgusting. It was disrespectful to all the veterans and everyone else buried in that cemetery. It looks like trash. I don’t mind paying for it out of my taxes. I just think it needs to be taken care of.

“As it is right now, I think it’s a sin,” she said.

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