Lost cemetery proves costly for DVM in building new practice

Lost cemetery proves costly for DVM in building new practice

Feb 01, 2012

LaSalle, Ill. — Unexpected costs can creep into construction projects, but Dr. Steve Dullard couldn't have anticipated the discovery of a 150-year-old cemetery when he went to break ground on a new veterinary practice.

Dullard, Dipl. ABVP, owner of Ancare Veterinary Clinic with locations in Mendota and Spring Valley, and president of the Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association (ISVMA) and past president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), has been planning to build his new practice since 2007.

In fact, he purchased a 202-acre plot that had been used as farmland for the last 100 years. It was marketed as ready-to-build with a retention pond. While city leaders had mentioned there was an old cemetery that had fallen off the books somewhere in that area, he felt it was safe to proceed.

Dullard says the property had last been purchased by a group of physicians who intended to build a practice. The group eventually fell apart, from what he was told, and a title search came up clean. After receiving his state permits to start construction, Dullard says he began clearing trees in November 2010. On the second day of clearing the trees, Dullard received notice from the state informing him that his property was the site of an old church cemetery.

"We were just clearing trees," Dullard says of his surprise at receiving the notice. "This was supposed to be a ready-build piece of property."

The sanctioned church cemetery was used from about 1835 until around 1857. At that time, it was allegedly dismantled by the Catholic Church and sold to some private land managers for profit. All the gravestones were removed, but Dullard says there were still roughly 1,400 unmarked grave shafts on the property.

Cattle had grazed and farmers had tilled the land for more than 100 years without a problem, and Dullard says even many of the old-timers around town knew nothing about the cemetery. It was on plat maps a long time ago, but disappeared at some point, and church documents claim all the remains in the cemetery were moved.

But about 70 percent of the grave shafts contained human remains, and Dullard says he has had to pay to excavate and move more than 700 remains so far.

He has been able to move enough of the remains to move forward with construction while work on the rest of the property continues, Dullard says. But re-interments had to stop in December 2011 because of the weather.

The discovery of the cemetery set Dullard's project back more than a year. He says he was able to work out an agreement with the state to contain the costs of relocating the remains in the cemetery. Otherwise, removal and reinternment costs would have been prohibitive.

"We don't know exactly where it's going to end," Dullard says. "In Illinois, there's a law called the Human Skeletal Remains Act. They basically require this really extensive archeological type of process. It is so cost-prohibitive, nobody could ever afford to do it."

But, ethically, he can't sell the property—for which he paid a premium price—without disclosing the cemetery issue.

The state mandates that if a cemetery is found on a property, the owner must strip all the topsoil and investigate the grave shafts individually at a cost of $1,000 to $3,000 per grave shaft. With the number of grave shafts on his site, that would have put Dullard's cost to mitigate the cemetery alone at between $1.4 million and $4.2 million.

"They make it so punitive cost-wise you could never deal with it. It kind of gets down to the point where you have to decide, are you going to make things so punitive for business where they can't do anything?" Dullard says. "I had to figure out some type of remedy."