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BUCKSPORT, Maine — A proposal from a local gun club to build a shooting range on town-owned property has riled a group of residents who say the site is home to an unmarked 19th century cemetery.
The controversy began when the Bucks Mills Rod and Gun Club approached the town with a request to build a shooting and archery range on town-owned property off Upper Long Pond Road. The club lost its old range in the spring when the property owner died and her children refused to continue letting club members use the site.
As news of the proposal spread, a group of residents contacted the town to alert them to the existence of an unmarked cemetery at the site. Maine law requires that any construction or excavation near a cemetery be 25 feet from the burial ground’s boundaries.
The problem is while all those involved agree there’s probably a cemetery nearby, no one can agree on exactly where its boundaries are located. No stones or markers exist at the site today.
Emeric Spooner of Bucksport has been investigating cemeteries and burial sites in the area for 10 years and has published two books on the subject. In a report given to town councilors, he makes the case for the existence of a cemetery in the dead center of the property.
“I had been searching for the cemetery on that location for over a decade,” Spooner wrote.
Maps from 1860 and 1861 denote a cemetery at the site, Spooner said. Another map, created by the town’s Cemetery Committee in 1995, also notes the existence of an unnamed Upper Long Pond cemetery. Spooner resized the 1860 map and laid it over a current one to determine the cemetery’s location.
But another report, penned by Roger Greene, a member of the Bucks Mills Rod and Gun Club and a consulting forester, takes issue with the methods Spooner used to come up with the cemetery location. Simply resizing a map to create an overlay is tricky, he said.
Greene rectified the maps himself, using survey-controlled map data, and came to the conclusion that the cemetery — if it exists at all — could be more than 140 feet from where Spooner claims, straddling the line between municipal and private property.
“The lost cemetery is most surely in doubt as to its location, provided it did exist at one time,” he writes.
Maine law governs the procedure for construction and excavation at known and undocumented burial sites. In the case of Bucksport, where the exact location of the cemetery is unknown, the gun club or the town would be required to investigate the existence and location of graves.
“It’s a problem when it’s not obvious from the ground,” Arthur Spiess, senior archaeologist with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, said Friday. The law says the commission must be notified of possible disturbances to unmarked burial sites.
“Someone would need to resolve the boundaries of the cemetery,” he said. “If there’s no way to resolve the boundaries, then some level of archaeology has got to happen.”
Frank Dunbar of the Bucks Mills Rod and Gun Club said the club would be willing to build its range so as not to disturb the graves, but also said they wouldn’t take on the costs associated with finding the lost cemetery.
“We wouldn’t put money into this if we’re not going to be able to use it,” he said Friday.
Town Manager Michael Brennan said the town wouldn’t be willing to pay for the investigation, either. So the shooting range plan could be dead in the water before the Town Council even considers leasing the land to the gun club.
“It’s sad that this is the holdup we’re having,” Dunbar said Friday. “We’ve done everything humanly possible.”
Even if the rod and gun club could ensure their range wouldn’t disturb any grave sites, at least one resident still would fight the plan.
Cindy Christopher, an amateur genealogist with family roots on Upper Long Pond Road, said the site should be free from any development.
“It’s disrespectful if just feet from where they’re firing their guns is a cemetery,” she said. “I’m all for them having a range, but let’s find a different site. Bucksport is a big town.”
“I just wish someone would donate some ground-penetrating radar so we could clear it up for both sides,” she said.
The town will hold a meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday, July 12, on the gun club’s lease proposal. The location of the lost Upper Long Road cemetery is expected to be the main topic of conversation.
“We obviously want to make sure we’re not disturbing any burial sites,” Brennan said. “That’s our key concern at this point.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.