(WSVN) - It’s a fight over a piece of Pompano Beach history, and tonight there are questions about whether unmarked graves could be paved over. Here is 7 Investigates’ Karen Hensel.
Pastor Howard McCall: “What we are facing now, we really need you, Lord!”
The power of prayer before a packed house this week.
Pastor Howard McCall: “We come to stand together.”
Stand together — and fight together.
At issue: the future of the historically Black Westview Community Cemetery in Pompano Beach. Last year, this 4.5-acre portion of the property was sold to a developer who plans to build an industrial office complex on the land.
But some longtime residents have grave concerns.
Sonya Finney, resident: “We were told that back in the day, that that’s where they would bury babies and put them in a box, not in a casket. And they would bury them there.”
Ninety-one-year-old Elijah Wooten says he believes the bodies of poor people are buried there in what he calls “paupers’ graves,” unmarked, from the 1950s and ’60s.
Elijah Wooten, resident: “Bodies were being placed in there before I had finished high school. They were placed in there.”
Elijah knows the history because he is a lifelong resident, and for 20 years, he was chairman of the board overseeing the cemetery.
Elijah Wooten (speaking at Nov. 15 Pompano Beach Planning and Zoning Board meeting): “Bodies were placed there.”
He was among those who spoke out against the development at a city meeting last month.
Resident (speaking at board meeting): “I got one word to say: deny.”
The nonprofit that runs the cemetery sold part of it to the developer for $1.1 million, but before construction can begin, the city has to agree to rezone the land.
And that is at the heart of this latest battle.
Kevin Eason, resident (speaking at board meeting): “That land was set aside for burial use only, only. Now, if you purchased it, what you did — you purchased a cemetery.”
In recent years, 7 Investigates has reported on the troubles at the crumbling cemetery, filled with broken headstones and sinking burial vaults.
At the city meeting in November, an attorney for the developer said the purchase deal includes money to repair and maintain the cemetery.
And he acknowledged the controversy.
Keith Poliakoff, attorney for developer (speaking at board meeting): “We totally recognize, fully recognize, the raw emotions and the feelings of the community.”
The developer hired a company to scan for graves twice, using ground penetrating radar.
Keith Poliakoff (speaking at board meeting): “Did every inch of that property, and they found no burials were ever occurred on that property.”
Elijah Wooten disagrees — and says he even gave a sworn statement.
Elijah Wooten: “I told them dead bodies were placed there. It was there, it was there.”
Karen Hensel: “Bodies?”
Elijah Wooten: “Bodies.”
The board recommended unanimously to the city commission to deny the rezoning — a win for these residents.
But clearly, this land battle is not over.
Keith Poliakoff (speaking at board meeting): “The ownership will go back to the drawing board, if it has to, and it will say, ‘OK, fine, if we have to turn this into a waste transfer station under the code, that’s what we’ll do.’ And sometimes, you know, you better be careful what you ask for.”
A lawsuit to block the sale of the 4.5 acres in the first place failed. Now, a new lawsuit has been filed questioning who is legally in charge of this cemetery. Bottom line: the controversy may move from a cemetery back into a courtroom in 2024.
Karen Hensel, 7News.
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