Plan to Build Home on Top of Historic Heard Cemetery in Sandy Springs, Ga., Enrages Neighbors

Heard family cemetery Sandy Springs Georgia
Heard family cemetery Sandy Springs Georgia

A real estate attorney's plans to build a home on top of a cemetery in Sandy Springs, Ga., that dates back to the 1800s has neighbors outraged and fearful that the property's historic value is in jeopardy.

"It was meant to be left like this," Gloria Taylor, who lives near the tree-lined 19th century site, told CBS Atlanta News. "When it's gone, you can't get it back. ... It's gone permanently, and that's a shame."

According to a deed dated 1900 (pictured at left), the one-acre cemetery for the Heard family, one of the founding families of Sandy Springs, was created by Judge John Heard. The document reportedly indicates that Heard intended for the property to remain a cemetery for himself and his family. But Fulton County, Ga., officials repossessed the property years ago after filing a lien against it for unpaid taxes. That should have never happened, neighbors insist, because cemeteries are exempt from property taxes. Court documents show that the county sold the property on the courthouse steps to real estate attorney Christopher Mills for $1.

When Mills filed for a building permit to construct his family home on the cemetery, the city of Sandy Springs denied it, recognizing the historic significance of the site. Mills is now suing the city for the right to build there.

Mills has declined to comment to the media about the case.

"You can't build a house on this property -- I don't care how careful you are -- without destroying the ambiance and integrity of the site," Taylor told Atlanta TV station FOX 5.

There's another reason the Heard family cemetery is so important to locals: It played an important role in the Civil War. It's the spot where Union soldiers first crossed the Chattahoochee River.

"There's a historical marker here that shows ... this whole ridge was used as a strategic point in the Civil War," Sandy Springs resident Rachel Rosner told CBS Atlanta. "Not only is it just this beautiful, peaceful, thinking spot. ... I would hate to see this destroyed."

Neighbors want so badly to save the cemetery from Mills' plans that they've even reached out to living descendants of John Heard to bolster their case, according to the Sandy Springs Reporter.

Preston Heard, who says he is a direct descendant of John Heard, told the newspaper that he is considering joining legal action against Mills.

"I do think it's at least curious that this guy would want to build on land against the clear wishes of the neighbors," Preston Heard said. "That means more to me than the family heritage aspect. I don't know if that's how my siblings and family would feel."

For historic preservationist Clark Otten, saving the cemetery is of the utmost importance.

"I think it's an extremely important site that needs preservation," Otten told FOX 5.

The Sandy Springs battle joins a number of disputes over preserving historic sites and landmarks in the news recently. The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., raised the ire of preservationists when it introduced plans to build faculty housing on the site of the Battle of Princeton in 1777. And in Phoenix, conservationists are trying to stop a developer from tearing down an original Frank Lloyd Wright home.

UPDATE, Oct. 8 -- Rosner tells AOL Real Estate that neighbors have set up a group called Friends of the Heard Cemetery with a Facebook page and a PayPal account where people can make donations toward preserving the cemetery. Rosner said it will cost at least $5,000 to pay for the legal fees associated with protecting the cemetery.

CBS Atlanta 46

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