Ownership of South Portland cemetery now set in stone

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SOUTH PORTLAND —  On a recent wet Tuesday, cars rushed along Broadway while birds sang in an overgrown cemetery amid broken gravestones overrun with weeds and dandelions.

But thanks to a generous donation the scenario is set to change.

The New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church has donated  $70,000 to the city to help pay for maintenance of the privately owned Brown’s Hill Cemetery.  The city accepted the donation Sept. 18, and will now be responsible for maintaining the graveyard.

The small cemetery at 179 Ridgeland Ave. on the corner of Church Street and Broadway is surrounded by a rusty chain-link fence and mostly remains in disrepair. The dates on the gravestones range from the early 1800s to as recent as 2011. Some are lying on their sides, while the names and dates on others are undecipherable. Some veterans’ graves marked with a flag are propped up. A few graves, with newer stones, are neatly trimmed, with a flower or basket of flowers.

But most are forgotten people, many long ago deceased.

South Portland City Manager Scott Morelli wrote in a Sept. 11 memo during a City Council workshop that the cemetery has been neglected since spring or summer. It had been cared for by the First United Methodist Church of South Portland, which closed due to declining membership in 2013 with only eight members left.

“Although the church itself never owned the adjacent Brown’s Hill Cemetery, it had always helped to maintain it,” Morelli wrote.

After the church closed, New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, which assumed ownership of the property, continued to maintain the cemetery.

Morelli said in the memo that after the church closed, church officials “approached both the city and South Portland Historical Society about taking over maintenance of the cemetery. The church even offered seed money to at least the SPHS for doing so. Both the city and SPHS declined, due in large part to long-term financial sustainability concerns. This past year, the church discontinued maintenance of the cemetery, which soon became unsightly with significant overgrowth.”

Morelli said state law “compels us (South Portland) to maintain it, as it essentially has been abandoned,” even though the city does not own the cemetery.

Maine law requires municipalities, in collaboration with other organizations such as veterans’ organizations, to keep in “good condition all graves, headstones, monuments, and markers designating the burial place of Revolutionary soldiers and sailors and veterans of the Armed Forces of the United States.” It includes keeping the grass, weeds and brush cut and trimmed around the graves from May 1 to Sept. 30 each year.

Morelli wrote, “Given the impracticality (and absurdity) of selectively trimming grass and brush on just veterans’ graves while leaving the others overrun, municipalities almost always default to maintaining the entire site.”

The issue of the cemetery came up again this summer, and the city began looking at options, Morelli said.

The city conducted a title search on the cemetery, he said, but the ownership remains murky.

City staff did discover that in 1881 the town of Cape Elizabeth transferred the title of the newer portion of the cemetery to the trustees of Brown’s Hill Cemetery. Staff could not find any records as to who owns the older portion of the cemetery. There are also no known trustees.

So in August, city and church officials met, resulting in the donation.

“I should note that they (the church) have no requirement whatsoever to perform any maintenance at this cemetery. This financial offer is both voluntary and incredibly generous,” Morelli wrote, although he also noted that “in the long run the expenses will fall to our taxpayers, especially given the significant expense associated with properly cleaning, repairing and re-setting gravestones.”

The city also supports four other local cemeteries, either by financing through the Parks and Recreation Department or with manpower. The four cemeteries include Bay View ($460), Calvary Cemetery ($11,559), Mountain Pleasant ($8,243) and Highland Memorial Cemetery, which is maintained by the public works department.

Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or msochan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @melaniesochan.

A veteran’s broken grave sits among the grass and weeds at Brown’s Hill Cemetery.