Old cemetery at heart of zoning issue

LAWRENCEVILLE - A commercial rezoning in north Gwinnett is on hold while officials determine how close development should get to a church cemetery dating back to the 1850s.

A land development group wants 1.6 acres at Braselton Highway and Hog Mountain Church Road rezoned from rural residential to commercial so it can build a small strip center.

It is also seeking permission to eliminate a 75-foot buffer of undeveloped land that it would otherwise have to leave between the retail center and the Hog Mountain Baptist Church cemetery.

The 149-year-old church supports the buffer elimination, while a cemetery historian that the county relies on for expert opinion opposes it.

Phyllis Davis, chairwoman of the Gwinnett Historical Society's cemetery committee, said it's common for graves to be located outside a burial ground's known boundaries.

If that's the case with the Hog Mountain church cemetery, the development would disturb them, she said.

"This is one (buffer reduction) I really hope they turn down," Davis said. "If you put any development next to this at all, you will have traffic right next to the cemetery."

The church is selling the land that would be developed, and its pastor has sent a letter to the county in favor of the rezoning and buffer reduction.

"We as a church have no issues with the removing of the buffer, and would request that you would allow the buffer to be removed," wrote the Rev. Barney Williams.

A phone message left at Williams' Buford residence was not returned.

Davis advises county planners on rezonings that could affect Gwinnett's earliest cemeteries. She noted the church's stance in her report.

"It is especially disturbing that the administration of the church is more concerned with developing the ball field area of their property than protecting the cemetery," she said.

The county Planning Commission earlier this month tabled the case until Aug. 15.

The county Planning Division is recommending a 25-foot buffer, which is the county's standard policy for development near cemeteries. The county also mandates fences be installed around them by developers.

Davis said the 25-foot buffer is acceptable if the developers probe the perimeter of the cemetery to ensure no graves are located outside that size buffer zone.

Todd Syprett, a partner in Southern Creek Development, said the group is evaluating the measure to see how it would affect their project.

He said the group does not want to harm the graveyard.

"We're sensitive to the cemetery and anything we do there will" add to it, he said.

Landscaping and fencing could be installed to improve the cemetery, he said, and sonic testing will almost certainly be done to ensure there are no graves in the area that would be developed.

"I think that's something that is prudent," he said.

Hog Mountain Baptist Church was founded on Jan. 14, 1854, according to historical records.

The land it is selling is across the road from the church, and is a grassy field it uses for ball games. Another younger cemetery is located beside the church.

Davis said Gwinnett County does a good job of protecting old cemeteries from development. A majority of developers are also conscientious about them, she said.

Southern Creek is a partnership that does commercial and residential development in north Gwinnett, Jackson and Hall counties.

The oldest known grave in the Hog Mountain cemetery is marked 1843 and holds the remains of two little girls.