University City

I-485 impact worries friends of cemetery

Prosperity Presbyterian Church’s cemetery hasn’t changed much in its 225-year history.

The towering hickory trees still drop nuts on the centuries-old grave markers. The squirrels still crackle across the crisp fallen leaves, just like the generations before them.

But beyond the line of trees, change is moving at a rapid clip as the last five miles of Interstate 485’s outer loop complete the full circle.

The plume of clay dust swirling above the trees and the clang of steel excavation machinery hitting rock remind parishioners that, soon, thousands of cars will be heard rushing by the cemetery from day into night.

By the time the $139 million project is finished in December 2014, the area around the church will look drastically different, with new intersections, road patterns, bridges and businesses.

Although an environmental impact study found that the I-485 outer loop would pose no threat to the historic resource, it’s a worry to those who hold the history of the cemetery dear.

The list of people who are beginning to care has been steadily growing over the past few months.

At a meeting of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission last month, Dan Morrill, the commission’s consulting director, flicked on a PowerPoint presentation and pointed at the screen to a pair of gravestones from the cemetery.

“These stones are very important historical artifacts,” Morrill told the board. “They’re remarkable pieces.”

The markers are towering and thin, with evidence of artistic talent on the part of their creator. Morrill believes they were carved by the hands of the Bighams, a family of 18th-century stonemasons in Charlotte whose shop pulled rock out of a large quarry where Charlotte-Douglas International Airport now stands.

“The age of the cemetery and the existence of the Bigham stones brings us to the thought that it’s worth further study,” said Morrill, who recommended the cemetery be added to the survey committee’s list of landmarks to consider examining for their historic value.

A half-dozen past and present members of the church, armed with a 200-signature petition, attended the meeting as well, hoping to persuade the commission to designate the cemetery a historic landmark, too.

“We’d just like to see it happen, to give it a little added protection,” said Vickie Robbins, 72, who lives in Mint Hill and worries businesses will creep around the cemetery, disturbing its solitude.

“I grew up in the church. I’m not a member now, but my dad and my grandma are buried in the cemetery,” Robbins said. “And my mom has a spot beside my dad.”

But Morrill said church leaders so far are against the idea of the designation, and said so in an emailed response.

“They essentially did not believe that the historic landmark designation was necessary, and they did not favor it,” he said.

A voicemail Morrill left for Pastor Berry Stubbs before the meeting was never returned, Morrill said, and no one representing the church leadership attended. Repeated voicemails left for both the pastor and ruling elder Jason Dove by The Charlotte Observer also were not returned.

Landmark designation would require the owners to seek permission from the Historic Landmarks Commission for any alterations that would change the appearance of the property.

Although law doesn’t require owner consent to designate the property a historic landmark, Morrill said, the commission generally likes to have it.

Morrill hopes the leadership will reconsider the issue when it’s brought up again at the next meeting of the survey committee. That meeting will take place in January, on a date yet to be determined.

“This is an old church that has been there for a long time,” said Morrill. “It’s also going to be impacted in a major way by the last leg of the outer belt, which is going to come close to the property. It’s certainly going to change the area enormously.”