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Plans to build townhomes on cemetery property frustrates community

Owners of Showmen's Rest Cemetery say money from selling an adjacent parcel will help with upkeep, but neighbors say they don't want development on the land.

TAMPA, Fla. — A developer’s plan to build multiple townhomes on an empty parcel of land adjacent to the Showmen’s Rest Cemetery and Woodlawn Cemetery along North Boulevard in Tampa has outraged neighbors, leading owners to temporarily put rezoning discussions on hold until early next year.

"I understand development, and I get it, but this is a cemetery,” said Aileen Henderson, a Tampa native leading a campaign against the townhomes.

Skyline 41 Investments is the developer seeking to build the homes on a parcel next to Showmen’s Rest and the adjacent Woodlawn Cemetery. Showmen’s Rest, Inc. owns the property. President Teresa Caddick said the sale would help the cemetery survive.

"We put that property up for sale because we needed funds to continue to take care of the parcel that we have all of our members and family buried in,” said Caddick.

Showmen’s Rest is a cemetery for circus workers and performers. Caddick says some of her own loved ones are buried there.

“I've read something [about] disturbing the deceased. I mean, I would never do that to my own family,” said Caddick.

Community members against the development said historical maps showed conflicting boundaries around the cemetery and expressed concern construction could impact graves.

"The claim from the owner is, 'well, there are no graves buried there.' But we don't know that,” said Henderson.

Caddick said there have been two geophysical investigations on the site to make sure the land is clear.

“It's a privately-owned parcel. We have had two studies done because of course, no one's going to buy it if there's any possibility at all, you know, of someone buried there,” said Caddick.

A report from Tampa-based GeoView which searched the area states, “No objects as would be associated with buried graves were encountered in the twelve test locations performed at the project site.”

However, independent archaeologists who reviewed the findings say these survey methods might not provide the best results.

“I'm not sure if it's a question of accuracy - it was just done under the guise of geophysics and not archaeology, so different questions and methods were employed,” said Jeff Moates of the Florida Public Archaeology Network at the University of South Florida.

One of Moates’ main areas of expertise is in detecting unmarked graves. He has been part of several teams that have detected hundreds of graves from destroyed African American cemeteries across the Tampa Bay area. He said the search for unmarked graves requires an archaeological approach as opposed to a geophysical one.

“It just brings up more questions than answers for me, and the methods that were used were not appropriate for answering archaeological questions that are archaeological in nature,” he said.

He added that the proximity of the potter’s field at the adjacent Woodlawn Cemetery, along with conflicting historical information about the boundaries, raises the possibility of graves in the area of interest.

Henderson, who has family buried in Woodlawn, says she wants to see a more thorough investigation of the land to make sure it is clear of graves.

She also expressed concern the development could destroy an African American section of the cemetery designated in the early 1900s. However, archaeologists who reviewed maps say the cemetery was much smaller at the time, and the graves would not be in the location developers are looking to build.

Community members also expressed concern the development could destroy an African American section of the cemetery.

Archaeologists who reviewed maps say it appears those graves would be in a different location of the cemetery.

“For me, it's very important that people know that we're here, and we're not going away, and they should not put 15 townhomes on cemetery property,” she said.

Tampa Heights where Showmen’s rest is located is rapidly gentrifying, and land is at a premium.

Skyline 41 Investments on its website describes its properties as modern, affordable and luxurious. It has developments in the Tampa Bay and Chicagoland areas.

Moates says historically, pressures of development have put cemeteries at risk in Tampa and beyond.

"These types of pieces of land, you know, are always kind of pressured for change, and are seen as opportunities for investment,” he said.

In this case, Caddick hopes the investment will keep Showmen’s Rest Cemetery going. 

“Our goal is to sell the property to someone that wants to do something to it, and use that money to keep up the other property. I mean we would do a really good job of that,” she said.

Tampa City Council will in February address rezoning the property belonging to Showmen’s Rest. The discussion was tabled in September as concerns were raised around development.

Emerald Morrow is a reporter with 10 Tampa Bay. Like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter. You can also email her at emorrow@10TampaBay.com