A plan to relocate and consolidate gravesites in White Oak Technology Park has found consensus with family descendants, allowing Henrico County to start a delicate process to free up more land there for economic development.
A Henrico Circuit Court judge on Friday approved an order allowing the county’s economic development authority to move two of three gravesites located in the park and consolidate them with the third – a process expected to make two sections of the park totaling nearly 350 acres of usable acreage more marketable.
The order results from and incorporates a settlement agreement between the EDA and 13 descendants who filed a lawsuit in November to stop the relocations.
The EDA said in its response to the suit that it had met with representatives of the families involved and thought it had reached an agreement when it applied for a permit from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. The descendants, of the Fisher and Garthright families, argued that DHR did not give their comments priority in awarding the permit to the EDA.
The county in January filed a bill of complaint seeking approval to move forward with the relocations, listing the descendants and 21 other individuals identified as potentially having an interest in the gravesites. That filing led to Friday’s hearing that resulted in the order granting the settlement agreement.
That agreement calls for the EDA to pay for the disinterment, removal, relocation and reinternment of dozens of remains at the two gravesites located in the park’s sites 10 and 12, both located south of Portugee Road. Those remains – the exact number of which has yet to be determined – would be moved to the third site, a 2.5-acre area on the eastern side of the park.
The EDA also will pay for a memorial to be built on a 2-acre site along Elko Road at the north end of the park.
Anthony Romanello, who started in March as the EDA’s executive director after 2 1/2 years as a deputy county manager, said the moves not only will make the park sites more marketable, but also show respect to the deceased and their families by providing some distance from the park’s industrial users.
“They’re fairly central to the sites, so if they weren’t moved, they would really hamper the developability of the sites,” Romanello said of the two gravesites to be moved. “And given the other uses in the park, you want to make sure that there’s proper separation, that the graveyards are in an area where they’re receiving the proper respect and the things around them are appropriate for a graveyard.
“Having a graveyard next to an advanced manufacturing site or some other industrial use is certainly not a compatible use,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that the graveyards were protected while also keeping the economic viability of the site.”
Patrick “Pat” McSweeney, of McSweeney Cynkar & Kachouroff, filed the suit for the family members and represented them in the discussions with the EDA. He called the EDA gracious in agreeing to pay for the relocations and the memorial.
“These parties worked together very diligently and over a fairly long period of time to come up with this settlement agreement,” McSweeney said. “The county was very accommodating, very helpful.”
McSweeney said the gravesites are located on land that the families once owned but the federal government seized in the 1940s to develop Elko Tract, a decoy airfield intended to lure German bombers during World War II. At least one grave is marked, with a headstone for Caroline Garthright, who died in 1894.
“That area was seized by the federal government during World War II, so these people were dispossessed of their property,” McSweeney said. “These cemeteries have been sort of orphaned ever since.”
McSweeney said Curtis Bryant, one of the descendants listed in the filings, coordinated discussions between family members and county officials. Attempts to reach Bryant for comment were unsuccessful Tuesday.
Romanello said the agreement was finalized three weeks ago in a meeting with the attorneys involved and family representatives at Elko Community Center in Varina.
“We went through point by point what ultimately resulted in that settlement agreement that Judge (John) Marshall approved on Friday, so I think everybody is well pleased with the course of action we’re about to take,” he said.
That process, scheduled to start next week and last through the summer, will involve exhuming the remains – a delicate process that Romanello said involves digging by hand – storing them, and ultimately relocating and burying them at the Elko Road site. None of the graves at that site will be moved.
Aecom is lined up as the contractor for that work. The Los Angeles-based engineering firm is familiar with the effort, having performed archaeological evaluations and burial delineations that located some of the remains.
Romanello said the cost of the effort is not known and will be determined by the number of graves to be moved. Court documents put the number of known graves above 50, though there is likely to be more, said Deputy County Attorney John Gilbody, who represented the EDA in the case.
“One of the issues that has arisen is that we don’t know how many graves,” Gilbody said. “We’re certainly talking about dozens. We’re not sure how many will ultimately be moved, because we simply don’t know how many exist at the sites.”
Romanello said the memorial will be designed with input from the family members. He said that project is budgeted to cost $250,000.
While the EDA already has been marketing the two park sites for potential users, Romanello said the relocations will make those sites more viable for prospective businesses.
He said the sites likely would house data centers or advanced manufacturing operations similar to White Oak’s current occupants, such as QTS, which recently filed plans to expand its data center footprint, and Facebook, which is expanding its data center there with three new buildings.
Grave relocations have made way for development in Henrico before. In 2016, Duke Development applied for a permit to relocate eight graves on the site of a planned subdivision. Two years earlier, a judge allowed an unmarked graveyard to be moved to make way for a phase of Stable Hill, a subdivision near Wyndham Forest.
In Hanover County, an unmarked grave prompted Rogers-Chenault to seek a relocation permit in 2015 for its Summerduck Farm subdivision.