Saving the cemetery
Proposed apartments spur efforts to preserve historical burial grounds
A proposed new apartment complex on Florida Road has sparked conservation efforts for La Plata County’s oldest cemetery, a long-neglected relic, which are long overdue.
Earlier this year, Dallas-based developer J Street Companies unveiled plans for a three- to four-story apartment complex with an estimated 200 units located on 16 acres of mostly vacant land about a half-mile north of Chapman Hill on the east side of Florida Road.
Ever since, the project has raised concerns among residents over compatibility with the surrounding neighborhood, traffic and building height. But one of the biggest concerns, critics say, is the potential impact to the Animas City Cemetery, which is adjacent to the east of the proposed development.
If you haven’t heard of the Animas City Cemetery, you’re not alone. For years, La Plata County’s oldest established cemetery, which is located on land owned by the City of Durango, has gone largely unmaintained and unrecognized, save for the efforts of local volunteers.
But that time has seemingly come to an end. Sparked by the potential impacts of the apartment complex, volunteers through Friends of the Animas City Cemetery have coalesced in full force to bring attention to the burial grounds, with the full backing of the City of Durango.
“Regardless of what happens with the apartments, the good thing is the interest in the cemetery has been elevated,” Ruth Lambert, a member of Friends of the Animas City Cemetery, said. “That’s the silver lining – that hopefully the concern for the preservation of the cemetery will continue.”
A slice of local history
The establishment of the Animas City Cemetery is congruent with the settlement of Animas City itself, the community founded in 1876 on the north end of what’s now Durango. It once extended north to the beginning of the Animas Valley and south to where Junction Creek enters the Animas River.
The first recorded burial, which does not have a headstone, was in 1877, according to historical documents. The first marked burial was in 1878, a young boy from the Lavender family. Over the years, the cemetery served as the burial site for many of the area’s founders, pioneers, outlaws, miners, Civil War veterans and entire families.
The last burial was in 1966, and over the following decades, it appears there was not much upkeep for the site, which the City of Durango acquired in a land donation in 1985. “The cemetery has been pretty much ignored by the City of Durango in the past,” Lambert said. “But there were a lot of people concerned about the cemetery.”
In 2004, Friends of the Animas City Cemetery formed to take care of the burial grounds, which had become overgrown, with headstones in disrepair. Also, Durango’s Historic Preservation Board and City Council designated the site as a Historic Landmark on the City Register of Historic Places that same year.
Not only did Friends of the Animas City Cemetery maintain the grounds, they also launched an extensive effort to fully document all the people buried there. From 2004 on, the group regularly applied for and received grant money to conduct its research.
Now, the Friends of the Animas Cemetery has documented an estimated 170 graves on the 5-acre property. And, they created a website that includes information they found through scores of historical records (which you can check out at www.animascitycemetery.org).
“It’s an ongoing process,” Lambert said. “Depending on records and the research we’re able to do, we’re finding more and more people buried there.”
Rest in peace?
When J Street Properties proposed a new housing complex, known as the “Sophia Apartments,” just feet away from the historic cemetery, people were understandably concerned and upset, Lambert said.
For starters, the Animas City Cemetery, as it stands, is relatively hard to access, unfenced and hemmed in by private land. Building a new apartment complex would open up access to scores of new people, bringing along risks of unauthorized trails and potential damage to historic headstones (already people have built bike jumps on the property).
On top of that, the cemetery’s boundaries are not well defined, meaning it could be entirely possible, and very likely, that people are buried outside the established 5 acres, Lambert said.
And, on a higher level, Lambert said the cemetery’s location was specifically chosen as a final resting place because of its beautiful views of the La Plata Mountains and Animas Valley. With a new three- to four-story apartment complex, the character – and peace – of the cemetery would be altered significantly, she said.
As a result, the Friends of the Animas Cemetery have asked J Street Properties to provide fencing around the entire site, along with a proper entrance and signage. Also, the group wants the developer to conduct remote sensing at least 20 feet from the cemetery’s boundary to look for unmarked graves.
What’s more, the Friends of the Animas City Cemetery have called on the developer to submit plans that take into account the views and character of the cemetery (as proposed, a pool/gym/office area and parking is right next to the burial grounds). And, the group says the buffer from the cemetery to the apartment complex should be increased from the proposed 5 feet to 10 feet.
Coming up with a plan
Where the Sophia Apartments proposal is headed is up in the air.
On April 24, the Durango Planning Commission voted to recommend the Durango City Council deny the project after more than 40 neighbors spoke against it. Now, J Street Properties can either go to the Durango City Council for a final vote June 20, or go back to the drawing board and modify its plans.
Dean Brookie, a local architect (and former city councilor) who is the project representative for J Street Properties, said the developer is amenable to making concessions as it pertains to the preservation of the cemetery. And, he added, the developer is just as interested to find any unmarked graves before construction begins. Per law, if human remains are found during construction, the project must immediately stop, causing significant delays.
However, Brookie said a formal preservation plan should be led and developed by Colorado’s State Historic Preservation Office. And, he said the cost of preservation efforts shouldn’t fall entirely on the developer, suggesting the City of Durango and available grants should help fund the project.
“Myself and the developer are interested in protecting the cemetery,” Brookie said. “But it needs to be done as part of a historic preservation plan, not just sending some contractor up there to install a fence.”
Regardless of what happens with the Sophia Apartments, the entire ordeal has inspired a newfound appreciation for protecting the cemetery, especially with the City of Durango, Lambert said.
Mark Williams, a planner for the City of Durango, said one idea is to team up with the Friends of the Animas City Cemetery and apply for the site to become a State Historical Landmark, which would open up potential grant opportunities.
Ultimately, preservation efforts could include established trails through the site (instead of the existing, dispersed social trails and aforementioned bike jumps), fencing around the entire 5-acre property and informative signs that speak to the historic significance of the burial grounds.
“We’re just in the early stages,” Williams said. “More details need to be worked out, but we’re definitely aware it’s a big issue that needs to be thought through.”