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Charleston looks at adding new city regulations for building on burial sites

Published: Jul. 12, 2021 at 4:18 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 12, 2021 at 8:13 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A push is now underway to get new regulations on the books in the City of Charleston to protect unmarked or abandoned graveyards and cemeteries.

“We don’t have a lot of municipal ordinances to look at. By and large this has been left to state law,” said Brian Turner, director of advocacy at the Preservation Society of Charleston. “When it comes to human burials, there is an added reason why the common decent person should care about that issue. No one wants to be digging in their garden and dig up human bones. That’s not an enjoyable experience. Basic planning will allow us to avoid unfortunate incidents.”

The Preservation Society renewed its effort to get a new regulation after two African American burial sites were discovered at 88 Smith Street. The homeowner had begun renovation work on the property that potentially could have disturbed some of those graves. Last week, the City of Charleston ordered the work to be stopped citing permit issues.

“It’s important to recognize that this is not the first instance that the city has been made aware in recent years of really high profile cases . . . the College of Charleston’s library project, the Gilliard Center and, most recently, in Cainhoy Village where there has been a threat to an African American cemetery,” Turner said. “The preservation society is particularly concerned given the pressures for growth in the region that unmarked and unmaintained, abandoned cemeteries are under a significant threat.”

Representatives from Mayor John Tecklenburg’s office seem to agree. Director of communications Jack O’Toole says they have been working on an archeological regulation since last year.

“Protecting historical cemeteries is the next logical, and important, step in our ongoing efforts to preserve Charleston’s history,” O’Toole said in a statement. “The city is currently working with the preservation community and others on both an archeology ordinance and a standalone cemeteries ordinance, each of which should help us make real progress on this issue before the year is out.”

Turner says they are still very much in the brainstorming phase of figuring out exactly what a burial ground regulation would look like but he thinks he knows where they can start.

“The first step of that has to be an inventory. Mapping and understanding where these sites are and then we can figure out what to do,” Turner said. “I think one of the most promising starts the city can do is look at creating a commission that has the expertise and authority and that commission can make recommendations.”

An unofficial inventory already exists, which Turner thinks is a good place to start. In 2010, the Chicora Foundation identified more than 100 burial sites throughout the city. Since then more sites have been added and verified by other organization and societies.

“We will never know who these people were. We will never know their stories but isn’t the least we can do is give them a little recognition,” Turner said. “A lot of these men and women are responsible for building this city. They were responsible for building one of the most remarkable cities in the world.”

O’Toole says he thinks they can get the new regulations hammered out by the end of the year.

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