Developer: St. Louis Plans Protect Cemetery

One of the developers behind plans to build 30 houses on 13 acres along Snake Hill Road near St. Louis has said despite concern at a public meeting last week—and voiced by County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) and Loudoun County Historic Preservation Planner Heidi Siebentritt—the plans protect all the historic burial sites on the property.

About 50 residents crowded into the Mt. Zion Baptist Church of St. Louis’s congregation hall last Thursday to voice their concerns that the project, Middleburg Preserve, could impact both their water supply and undiscovered graves on the property. The developers behind the project were not in attendance. But developer Hobie Mitchel—who was behind some of Loudoun’s most recognizable developments like Lansdowne on the Potomac, South Riding, and Crescent Place—said he and his partners have gone to great lengths to ensure every burial site is protected.

Plans for the project submitted to the county show a cemetery set off with a buffer and four-foot fence. While attendees of the meeting said an archaeological survey commissioned by the developers, Mojax LLC, revealed 23 graves and estimated that there are 23-30 more, Mitchel said those other graves are all within the cemetery’s bounds.

“Our goal was to make sure we found the cemetery, and two, that we discovered the maximum extent of the cemetery,” Mitchel said, noting that although the title to the property did not mention a cemetery, he had hired an archaeologist based on information from the community that there was one.

Confusion seems to stem from the archaeological report, prepared by The Ottery Group. The company’s investigator found rows of fieldstones, which had mostly sunk below ground level.

“Sufficient mechanical stripping was conducted extending outward from the identified graves to determine with a high degree of certainty that the limits of the cemetery have been established,” the report reads. “In addition to the 23 grave shafts identified, the layout of the cemetery suggests that up to 30 graves remain unexposed.” It further says the cemetery will be registered with the county and protected by a 50-foot buffer.

A followup email from Ottery Group Managing Director Lyle Torp, after Thursday’s meeting, further clarified that the center of the burial area was not investigated to minimize disturbance to the burial grounds and follow best practices.

“The delineation of the Robinson/Howard cemetery successfully determined the outer boundaries of the cemetery, which is measured at approximately 50 x 70 feet,” Torp wrote.

“I just don’t touch cemeteries,” Mitchel said. “When I did South Riding, they had four cemeteries down there, some of them were pretty big. They ranged from four to 80, and Lansdowne even had them, so it’s hard not to. The key is making sure that you do what’s necessary to find out if there is one there, and two is to protect it. When I saw ‘Poltergeist’ decades ago I said, man, I’m not touching a cemetery.”

He also dismissed concerns about water quality, based on hydrology studies so far that have found clean, productive wells on the property.

“The plats that people are looking at now, show an ‘approximate boundary’ and not the actualarchaeologically delineated boundary,” Siebentritt wrote by email.“I think that is the disconnect. It is my understanding that a new submission from the developer is not anticipated until they have completed their hydro study and whatever else is outstanding. I expect the next submission will have the updated cemetery boundary on it.”

“I know there’s some neighbors that don’t want to see a rooftop out there, but we’re just following the rules,” Mitchel said. “And in fact in the title reports of all this stuff, there was nothing identified as a cemetery anywhere, but we knew about it, we heard about it, and so that’s when we got some other people involved in it.”

rgreene@loudounnow.com

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