Old graves in Dacula, Sugar Hill slow developers' plans

DACULA - An infant's grave discovered on a 50-acre new-home development site has caused Dacula officials to set grave disturbance permit procedures and fees. Twenty miles away near Sugar Hill, an 1838 graveyard is partly responsible for postponing an annexation and rezoning hearing for construction of 43 new homes.

Workers for Cheyenne Properties LLC discovered the grave of an infant lying alone in the woods off Harbins Road, near the intersection of Ace McMillan Road in Dacula. No date marks the headstone, only the words, "Child of Joseph Adams."

The Official Code of Georgia Annotated Section 36-72-1 gives specific instructions for treatment of abandoned burial grounds. An archeologist examines the site to determine the age, location and number of graves, then a genealogist prepares a plan to identify and notify any living family members. In a report submitted to Dacula officials, archeologist Leiellen Atz of Brockington and Associates in Norcross estimated the Adams grave to date from the mid-19th to early 20th century.

No family members have been found. However, several Adamses are buried in the Ebenezer Baptist Church cemetery on Harbins Road, and the developer plans to move the little grave there.

"We consider this the proper thing to do," said Ryan Sullivan of Cheyenne Properties. "It has been isolated and at peace, and we will move it to where it can be cared for and remain at peace."

Sullivan said the grave would be easier to locate in the church cemetery, should any family members show up in the future. When completed, the process will have cost Cheyenne Properties about $5,000. The development is tentatively named Bentley Estates.

Dacula will hold a public hearing at 7 tonight regarding movement of the grave, as required by law. Dacula set grave disturbance permit fess at $500 for one grave, $750 for two to 15 graves, $1,000 for 16 to 30 graves and $2,500 for 31 graves or more. All carry a $25 administration fee.

Level Creek United Methodist Church cemetery near Sugar Hill

A 19-acre parcel of land on Suwanee Dam Road near the intersection of Whitehead Road holds a cemetery only a dozen years or so younger than Gwinnett County. In 1818, Gwinnett County was formed and land given away in a series of three lotteries. The congregation of Level Creek United Methodist Church built a 30-foot by 40-foot three-sided log church and a cemetery next to it in 1828. Thirty-nine bodies, 24 of which are children, were laid to rest in the graveyard during the church's 10 years on the site. Today, anyone wishing to visit the old cemetery would have to hike through underbrush.

"The area is grown up with trees," said Rick Beggs, unofficial church historian. "There's a trash dump nearby littered with TVs and old mattresses."

Beggs watched as Atz used a 4-foot-long metal T-shaped rod to probe the ground. Fieldstones and sunken ground marked some gravesites. Oral church history and the coffins' shapes helped determine the cemetery's age, and disturbed soil pinpointed the location of individual graves. All graves located face east to west.

"Prior to 1850, caskets were like Dracula's; they were widest at the shoulder and narrowed down," Beggs said. "When they dug a grave, they dug down to a point and then they dug the hole to match the shape of the coffin. This produced a shoulder of undisturbed soil, the coffin ledge, that the archeologist was probing. I tried it, and it takes quite some skill."

All 39 bodies resting in the old graveyard are known only to God.

"The church has no records that identify them," Beggs said. "We could only speculate. We know who's not there. For example, we know the church's founder, Jones Douglass, is not there, because he's buried somewhere else."

Property owner Joseph Cheeley Jr. and contract buyer Jim Barber have offered no plans for moving the cemetery, an expensive process. After 167 years, there might not be much left to move.

"You might recover some hardware, buttons, maybe the back of a skull," Beggs said.

The area lies in unincorporated Gwinnett County and is zoned low-density residential. The owner and developer are asking Sugar Hill to annex the 19 acres and rezone it for a 45-lot new-home development. Homes would be a minimum of 2,800 square feet of heated space. Sugar Hill City Council was set to hear the request in August's council meeting, but tabled the matter until 7:30 p.m. Sept. 12 because of issues with a dam on the property, changes to the community's layout and questions regarding the cemetery.

The property does not appear on Sugar Hill's future land-use map. Sugar Hill's planning commission recommended approval of the project with conditions, one of which stipulates protection of the cemetery.

In 2001, a burial plot dating to the mid-1800s and holding an estimated 20 members of the Lockridge family caused an issue during construction of the Wal-Mart at Satellite Boulevard and Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road. Wal-Mart officials favored moving the cemetery, the Lockridge family wanted it to remain undisturbed. The two compromised, and the small cemetery and the giant Wal-Mart coexist peacefully as neighbors.