NEW PALESTINE — Proposed construction of an office building near an historic African-American cemetery in New Palestine has sparked debate between the landowner and local preservationists.
Representatives of the landowner, retired dentist Brian Shoppel, said a discrepancy in paperwork documenting the size of the cemetery is to blame, and the error can be easily fixed to avoid infringing on the burial site.
Preservationists contend the fence surrounding the site doesn’t necessarily indicate an exact boundary, and construction in the area could unearth bodies that were buried in the mid-1800s.
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Delaney Cemetery, which is owned by the county and cared for by Sugar Creek Township officials, sits on the north side of U.S. 52 about a mile west of County Road 500W. The land is directly west of a building that housed Shoppel’s former dental office.
Shoppel has plans to construct another building next to the one at 5774 U.S. 52 West. That would bring the structure uncomfortably close to the cemetery, members of the Hancock County Pioneer Cemetery Board said.
Cemetery board members voiced their concerns to the New Palestine Plan Commission.
They said they want to make sure the size of the Delaney Cemetery is identified correctly as cemetery boundaries are protected. They also said they fear unmarked graves outside the formal cemetery boundary could be disturbed.
“We don’t want anyone to start digging and have any surprises,” cemetery commission board member Nancy Leach said.
Plan commission attorney Gregg Morelock pointed out the preliminary plan for the new construction does not include the cemetery land but recommended the commission seek clarification before approving construction plans.
Part of the concern lies in project documents identifying the size of the cemetery.
The proposed site was surveyed by H. Gibson Land Surveying LLC. In the legal description presented to the plan commission, the cemetery was said to be about .07 acres in size with a 5-foot walkway allowing visitor access.
The cemetery commission board members objected to that estimate, citing earlier legal documents that list the cemetery as much larger.
James Arthur of New Palestine presented a copy of the original 1860 deed. It states the cemetery is more than three times the size presented to the plan commission — about a quarter of an acre. He also presented paperwork showing that when Shoppel bought the land near the cemetery in 1981, the cemetery was still listed at .25 acres.
“What was surveyed and what (is) in the legal description of that plat … is in error,” Arthur said.
Harold Gibson, the surveyor who spoke to the plan commission on the Shoppel family’s behalf, said there are no plans to disturb the cemetery. He said the family is open to working with preservationists to identify the cemetery’s boundaries.
“If you all can show us where the limits are, we can get it right,” Gibson said.
Gibson said that, if the cemetery extends beyond what he has identified in the proposal, he will be glad to make changes to his plans. He said the issue could have been avoided had he known about the boundary concerns with the cemetery prior to his survey.
But the cemetery’s listed size is not the only issue, Leach said. She also said it’s reasonable to believe people are buried outside the cemetery fence lines, which often happened in earlier times when families couldn’t afford headstones, making it more difficult to pinpoint the location of graves.
Indiana law prohibits disturbance of the land within 100 feet of a cemetery without approval from the Department of Natural Resources, Leach said.
Looking for tombstones isn’t a reliable means of determining the cemetery’s boundaries, cemetery board secretary Cindy True said.
“You can probe all you want, but we might not find a tombstone,” she said. “They could try ground-penetrating sonar, but that might be pretty costly.”
The Indiana Historical Society lists John Delaney, a farmer and grocer, as the original landowner in the 1850 census. Delaney and his wife, Sarah, are buried in the cemetery.
Other family names buried there include Cambridge, Malson, Burns, Butler, Chavis/Chevis, Custor, Griffin, Locklear, Roberts and Washington.
Gibson plans to return to the site in the coming weeks in hopes of clarifying the cemetery’s boundaries. The plan commission will take up the issue at its Aug. 19 meeting.
What: New Palestine Plan Commission meeting
When: 6:30 p.m. Aug. 19
Where: New Palestine Town Hall