Two long-serving members of the Prince William County Historical Commission have resigned in the wake of the board of supervisors’ recent decision to remove a historic family cemetery to make way for a new Coles District fire station.
Bill Olson, who has represented the Occoquan district on the commission since 2007, and Elaine Yankey, who has served the Brentsville district for about 20 years, tendered their letters of resignation Wednesday.
Neither would say their resignations are a direct protest to the supervisors’ vote Tuesday to approve a design for the new fire station that requires 17 graves to be disinterred from the 1850s-era “Norman Cemetery,” but both say they’re disappointed and have lost confidence in the county’s commitment to preserve cultural and historic resources.
Yankey notes that the move follows the 2013 relocation of the nearby Lynn family cemetery, which was uprooted to build a football stadium at the new Charles J. Colgan High School.
The Norman and Lynn families were related and farmed in the mid-county area before and after the Civil War. The cemetery at issue is located directly east of the existing Coles District fire station.
“This is the second time in two years that the county has voted to disinter and relocate a cemetery for the convenience of the county,” Yankey said. “And I think that sends the message that we do not value cemeteries.”
Olson, who has devoted decades of work to the restoration and preservation of historic cemeteries in both Prince William and Fairfax counties, said his resignation was a matter of “mutual disrespect” between himself and Prince William officials.
“They obviously don’t respect me because they don’t pay attention [to the historical commission] and I don’t respect them because they don’t,” Olson said.
The mission of the historical commission, 16-member board appointed by individual county supervisors, is to advise county officials in their efforts “to identify, preserve, protect and promote” historical sites, artifacts and buildings in the county.
But Olson said he has “lost faith” in the county’s process when it comes to fairly evaluating whether the relocation of gravesites is absolutely necessary for new development.
Regarding the new Coles District fire station, a project the historical commission has been watching for months, Olson said he and his fellow commissioners believe supervisors should have delayed the vote until they had more information about how building design differences might have affected rescue response time.
Olson recommended that county fire officials use an assessment tool developed by Fairfax County firefighters in 2010 to predict how station design alternatives affect “turnout time” – the time it takes firefighters to don their gear and mount their vehicles after receiving a call for help.
Prior to the supervisors’ vote Tuesday, Prince William Fire Chief Kevin McGee said the department’s preferred design for the station would quicken response times because it offers first-floor sleeping quarters for firefighters and allows for a “bail out” driveway around the station, which he called “essential” for making the quickest possible exit on busy Va. 234.
But Olson said the difference must be quantified to decide whether digging up the gravesites is justified.
“They had made no attempt to address a quantity [of time] as to what it meant to turnout,” Olson said in an interview Thursday. “They kept saying it doesn’t make a difference because every second matters… But that’s not true. Obviously a second matters, but whether it affects the outcome [of an emergency] could be remote.”
Olson said commissioners also objected to county staff’s calling the cemetery “abandoned,” which they say suggests “no one cared about it.”
Although marked only by field stones, the cemetery was documented by local historian Ron Turner in 1998 and had been intermittently cared for by the volunteer firefighters, who cleared the area of trees several years ago, Olson said.
Also, some family members of those buried in the cemetery spoke out against the its removal during a public hearing before the vote.
Kayne Karnbach, chairman of the historical commission, said he was “saddened” by news of Olson and Yankey’s resignations and called it “a huge loss,” not only to the commission but the entire historian community.
Karnbach said Olson has been instrumental not only in helping to preserve dozens of small family cemeteries around the county but also in efforts to mark local historic sites.
Olson has researched and identified several sites and even paid for some of the more recent markers with his private funds.
Olson also helped write a recently passed Virginia law that, among other things, requires local officials notify local historical commissions before cemeteries are disinterred for new development.
The measure was proposed by Del. Rich Anderson, R-51st, after the Lynn cemetery was disinterred for Colgan High School, and was passed by Virginia lawmakers unanimously in 2014.
Occoquan Supervisor Mike May, a Republican who is challenging longtime Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert in the upcoming Nov. 3 election, wrote a brief response to Olson’s resignation, thanking him for his service.
“I am sorry to see you leave the Commission, but I understand and respect your decision,” May wrote in an email that was shared with InsideNoVa.
Yankey said recent decisions to disinter cemeteries for public facilities sets a poor example for private developers who continue to build in fast-growing Prince William, often on land where prior generations were laid to rest.
“I can’t speak for anybody else, but I think [this] send the message to future developers, that there are ways to get around these cemeteries if you want to,” Yankey said.