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Residents concerned over cemetery tree clearing

March 5, 2012

PAWTUCKET — Several concerned residents have raised questions about recent tree clearing and bulldozing that has taken place in the private Walnut Hill Cemetery, yet the property owner claims the efforts are part of a planned restoration project.
Ken Postle, Bill Greenwood and Charles Mogayzel, all of whom have been involved in cemetery preservation and beautification efforts in the city, say they are concerned about what they have seen taking place in a rear section of Walnut Hill Cemetery that runs along Arthur Street.
Numerous trees have been cut down and stumps are in the process of being cleared along a back wall. A large area that drops off from a hill in a steep grade appears to have been bulldozed and the ground has been dug up in and around some headstones that are visible.
The three men, all members of an ad hoc cemetery committee, say the disturbances of the trees and the ground appear to be in blatant violation of state laws regarding historical cemeteries, while Joseph Franco, owner of Walnut Hill Cemetery, maintains that he is simply restoring the area and making long-awaited improvements.
Postle, who had led last year's effort involving Boy Scouts, veterans and other volunteers to spruce up and restore the historical Mineral Spring Avenue Cemetery, is especially incensed about what he sees going on at Walnut Hill. He maintains that Franco is allegedly disregarding the state's laws pertaining to historical cemeteries in several ways, including using a backhoe to move earth and removing tree stumps by pulling them up. He said he has been told that Franco wants to fill in and level off the steep drop in grade that runs toward Arthur Street, and asserts that he cannot do this without following a permitting procedure and other state rules pertaining to excavation in historical cemeteries.
Charles Mogayzel and Bill Greenwood, who both toured the site recently, told The Times they were shocked to see the way the ground has been dug up and all of the trees have been cut down. “I could not believe my eyes,” said Mogayzel. He spoke of the “disgraceful way” that the graves, including those of veterans and young children, were obviously being treated and stated, “They would get more respect if they were put in the state landfill.”
Greenwood said that while he could not prove anything without a site map, it appeared to him that Franco was rolling over graves in his reconstruction efforts and looked to have recently placed new loam and wood chips at the site in an effort to fill it in.
Postle also said he questioned whether the construction of a new shed-type building located in another section of the cemetery was built according to the proper permitting procedures and whether any care was taken to make sure there were no graves underneath it. He said there seems to be a lack of any accurate listing of graves of those buried at Walnut Hill Cemetery, as is also required by state law.
Unlike the Mineral Spring Avenue and Oak Grove cemeteries, Walnut Hill, located adjacent to Oak Grove off Armistice Boulevard and the George Bennett Industrial Highway, has always been privately owned. According to city records, it dates back to 1882 when the Walnut Hill Cemetery Association was incorporated. Franco, the current owner, it believed to have purchased the site about 15 years ago.
Franco, who was working at the Arthur Street side of the cemetery on Monday, told the Times that he was, in fact, cleaning and restoring the site, replacing toppled headstones on their bases, and digging out and removing old tree stumps. “We are not covering and digging out graves. We're not burying graves. We are restoring the site,” he said. He added that he was angry about the allegations that have been made, and said they have come from “people who don't know what they are doing.”
Franco said he has owned and operated cemeteries for more than 20 years and maintained that he is taking care to preserve any graves that are in the rear section. “I know how deep the graves are. I know what I'm doing,” he said, adding that he has been consulting a site map. He said he knows there was a section at the rear that was reserved for “paupers'” graves and another numbered part along the wall that was used for interring the remains of stillborn babies. He said he intends to erect a new monument to mark these infants.
Franco said he hasn't yet started to grade and level the site but intends to do this, as well as erect a fence along Arthur Street to keep out vandals. He said he also has plans to plant a row of shrubs along Arthur Street to improve the look of the property.
Franco said he had been wanting to make improvements for some time, but had been held back due to costs. However, he said he recently received some funding for this purpose. “For the longest time, we had people complaining about the condition of this cemetery,” said Franco. Now, we have got money to restore it.”
Franco grew angry when asked about the accusations that he was burying over old graves to make space to sell new cemetery plots. He maintained that there are plots available in other sections of the historical cemetery if anyone wants to purchase one and does not have to create any spaces on the Arthur Street side for this purpose.
According to the Deputy City Clerk Michelle Hardy, Franco has been cited by the city in the past for zoning violations relating to a failure to maintain the property. However, she said that since the property is privately owned, it falls mostly under the jurisdiction of state laws regarding cemeteries.
Since Postle and the other ad hoc cemetery committee members brought their complaints to the mayor's office, city Public Works Supt. Lance Hill was asked to investigate the matter. He said he is currently looking into it and exploring the proper channels to go through.
Postle said the ad hoc cemetery committee has planned a meeting for Tuesday, Mar. 6 at 5 p.m. to discuss the issue further, and has also contacted the City Council's Cemetery Committee about the matter.

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