A local developer is pulling back from a plan that descendants feared was a threat to the historic Power family cemetery near Roswell and Pitts roads. But the long-term future of the heavily vandalized cemetery and its surrounded property remain unclear, in what preservationists say is a common challenge.

“Yet another cemetery in trouble,” said Wright Mitchell, an attorney whose cemetery preservation work led him to co-found the Buckhead Heritage Society. “It’s a sad tale, but not a new one.”

Taylor Morgan poses with the 1885 headstone of his ancestor William Power in the historic family cemetery off Roswell Road. (John Ruch)

Mitchell and other preservations say the Powers cemetery is one of many dotting the north metro suburbs that could be endangered by development. But there are also examples of cemetery-saving success to emulate, they say, and the first step is getting the sort of public interest that Taylor Morgan, a Power family descendant, is drumming up.

Morgan attended a recent city meeting about a parks master plan to advocate for the private Power cemetery, dating to the 1880s, where those buried are part of the same family whose Civil War-era business was immortalized in the name of Powers Ferry Road.

Morgan drew attention to a massive redevelopment project proposed on the website of Sandy Springs-based Heritage Capitol Partners for a woodland surrounding the cemetery as well as an adjacent apartment complex and offices. The conceptual plan covered roughly 40 acres with 600 apartments, 150 townhomes, and Kroger as a suggested anchor store.

The plan did not include the roughly 1-acre cemetery. But Marie Power Frazier, another descendant who serves as the family contact for arranging burials, said a Heritage representative offered her “thousands” of dollars to agree to move the bodies about two months ago in expectation of putting forward a development plan later this year.

Joseph Ashkouti, principal at Heritage Capitol Partners, later said the conceptual plan would be yanked from the website after Kroger expressed displeasure at being named publicly during talks before any deal had been signed. Ashkouti also denied that his company sought to move the bodies in the cemetery.

“We’ve never even considered that… We certainly would never buy that cemetery and try to move it,” he said. “We don’t need that piece of land to make our deal work.”

Large trees stand in and around the cemetery. (John Ruch)

The cemetery and surrounding woodlands are a single, 19-acre property owned by a limited liability company controlled by Heritage Capitol Partners owners, according to Fulton County property records. Ashkouti said the company is now focused on redeveloping the “18 acres” of woods and not the cemetery.

But Morgan remains concerned with whether plans could change and how redevelopment might affect the cemetery even if it remains. Then there’s the concern of the cemetery’s vandalized condition – someone even dug up a coffin there in 2016 – as no family member directly supervises it. He proposes a new city park, partly on the theory that would reduce vandalism.

“If you see a rusty can in the road, you kick it. If you see a glass vase with flowers, you’re not as likely to kick it,” Morgan said while leading the Reporter on a recent tour of the cemetery. “I want to make this into a glass vase.”

Morgan suggests the park could be named for even earlier residents, the Cherokee Indians, maybe featuring a “small, tasteful monument” to them. He points to an open area surrounded by large trees as a potential lawn and dog park.

He’s running a fundraiser and online petition at gofundme.com/wspower. Ashkouti says his company is open to the land being bought for park space – for the right price.

Frazier said the cemetery dates to 1883 and is the only remaining parcel from a 200-acre estate owned by her grandfather, who lived at Pitts Road and Spalding Drive. Morgan calls it the William and Sarah Power Historic Site after the earliest graves he could find, with William’s headstone dating to 1885.

For some cemeteries, an eternal future

Traci Rylands, a Dunwoody resident who writes a blog about historic graveyards called “Adventures in Cemetery Hopping,” said that Morgan’s efforts are on the right track.

“Sometimes all it takes is one family member who is determined to keep their family history intact to achieve success,” she said. “…I also think his idea for turning that area into a nature preserve [and] dog park of sorts is the kind of thing Sandy Springs residents are ready to embrace in the light of the massive development to the area they’ve witnessed in very recent years.”

Rylands said that struggling cemeteries often get maintenance help from Boy Scouts and long-term preservation assistance from historical societies. She noted the Dunwoody Preservation Trust’s successes in helping to save the Stephen Martin Cemetery, which sits behind a Hammond Drive shopping center in the shadow of Dunwoody skyscrapers, and the New Hope Cemetery in Dunwoody Village.

Visitors in the Stephen Martin Cemetery in 2016, as the State Farm regional office tower rose in the background. (File/Dyana Bagby)

Sometimes the efforts wind up in court. That’s what happened with the cemetery of another historic Sandy Springs family, the Heards, on Heards Drive. A property owner seeking to build a house on part of the site took the city to court in 2012.

Rachel Rosner, a neighbor and secretary of the historic and cultural organization Heritage Sandy Springs, was involved in the Heard cemetery battle. She said the legal case was quietly settled a few years ago, with a court order not to discuss certain details. But the bottom line, she said, is that the cemetery was preserved under the ownership of a nonprofit run by Heard descendants. She said that city zoning requirements for large setbacks around cemeteries might help in a situation like development around the Power cemetery.

Mitchell was involved in the Heard cemetery battle as well as part of his unusual expertise in cemetery preservation. He helped to form the Buckhead Heritage Society 12 years ago after noticing an obscure cemetery called Harmony Grove during a jog on West Paces Ferry Road and working to preserve it. That soon led to a successful court battle with a developer over another Buckhead cemetery, Mt. Olive, located next to Atlanta’s Frankie Allen Park.

In the Heard case, Mitchell said, a key was the discovery of an old deed that granted the Heards’ male heirs ownership of the cemetery in perpetuity. Mitchell said he has spoken informally with Morgan about the Power cemetery and that, while he doesn’t know the full details, its ownership situation might be different.

The Power cemetery is heavily vandalized. (John Ruch)

Public cemeteries – meaning those originally open for anyone to be buried – have strong legal protections, while private cemeteries have weaker ones, Mitchell said. In a situation where someone else owns a private cemetery’s land, other family members have access rights under the law. But moving to “wrest control” from developers could be difficult, he said.

“Typically, what happens is, the lot is sold off without anyone really realizing there was a cemetery on it,” said Mitchell.

Another important factor is not allowing the cemetery to fall into bad condition, as has happened with the Power cemetery. A Georgia law regarding abandoned cemeteries can kick in, which allows property owners in certain situations – including persistent poor conditions and an inability to locate surviving family members — to move the graves and redevelop the land. He said it can cost a lot of money for a developer, but that they may well have that money.

“It’s almost too late when somebody comes along 100 years later and says, ‘I’m ready to take up the charge,’” said Mitchell.

On the other hand, Rosner and Mitchell said that Morgan is taking an important first step by raising awareness about the cemetery. Rosner said that media attention and such efforts as renting an information booth at the Heritage Sandy Springs Farmers Market were important in saving the Heard cemetery.

“Taylor’s doing the right thing getting this to the public,” said Mitchell, saying it can be a way to ensure “developers will do their development, put a fence around the cemetery and leave it as is.”

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.