It was concerned neighbors, Friends of Heard Cemetery, who started the fight to leave the historic gravesite undisturbed.
Christopher Mills, unrelated to the Heard family and whose in-laws acquired the land to help preserve it, wants to build a home there.
Through efforts by Friends of Heard Cemetery, descendants of Judge John Heard only recently learned about a lawsuit against the City of Sandy Springs over denial of a building permit on the land.
“We have uncovered three heirs,” said Karen Meinzen McEnery. The City Councilwoman is fighting for Heards Cemetery as a private citizen.
“I’m speaking as preservationist…and no longer have an official interest in this issue,” she said.
Below: Friends of Heard Cemetery, has a booth at the Sandy Springs Farmers Market, to educate the community and collect donations.
The cemetery is located in Councilman Chip Collins’s district.
McEnery and four others formed Friends of Heard Cemetery to create a legal fund for the historic site. They would like to file a lawsuit to have it remain in perpetual use as a cemetery, undisturbed. They raised a $5,000 retainer for attorney Wright Mitchell.
McEnerny hopes neighbors will contribute to the legal fund. “It’s a historic cemetery. We need to protect it. We’ve gotten some key support in River Chase [subdivision]. Hopefully it will carry forward,” she said.
On Saturdays throughout October, Friends of Heard Cemetery, will have a booth at the Sandy Springs Farmers Market, to educate the community on the cemetery and collect donations. The booth was donated by the Farmers Market.
“Everyone is kind of hearing about it for the first time” said Preston Heard, a family descendant. “There is a very deep sense of gratitude for them stepping up.”
Preston Heard, who lives in Dunwoody, said he first learned of the issue on Tuesday. He is a descendant of John Owen Heard, the fourth son of Judge Heard and his first wife, Abigail.
Like many treasures in Sandy Springs, the cemetery lies in the quiet pocket of a residential road. About 30 graves are marked on a rustic acre amongst looming trees on Heards Drive.
Buckhead resident, Larry Specht’s great grandmother was one of John Heard’s children. “I remember going over there when I was eight or 10-years-old to visit the grave site of my mother’s younger brother and sister, who are buried there,” Specht said. “They died shortly after they were born in the ‘20s. My great granddad and my great grandmother are buried there.”
A slice of Heard history
The name Heards Ferry refers to a boat that operated on the Chattahoochee River. “It ran between Sope Creek and River Chase Circle in Sandy Springs,” McEnerny said.
It was first called Isom’s Ferry in 1860, when John Heard’s father-in-law ran the boat. Heard’s first wife Abigail was Isom’s daughter. Heard went off the Civil War and took over the boat when he returned. He renamed it Heards Ferry in 1868.
The Heards and Isoms owned five lots of property. The one-acre cemetery is all that is left, McEnery explained.
Abigail died in 1882 and John Heard eventually married his second wife Athelena. He had 23 children with both wives. On Feb. 20, 1900 Heard had the land deeded as a burying ground for his sons.
“There is some discussion that ownership of the property goes through the male heirs,” McEnery said.
Fulton County mistake snowballs
The cemetery dilemma came about after Fulton County assessed taxes on the land in error. Cemeteries are tax-exempt. Unbeknownst to neighbors, American Lien Fund acquired the tax deed.
McEnerny read Patch an email from David Fitzgibbon, chief appraiser for Fulton County, which said in part, that the Tax Assessors Office was unaware the land was a cemetery until 2007. Ownership of the lot was in the name of Carl Cleveland, Jr. Fulton County had no reason to suspect it was anything but a vacant taxable property, the note said.
Concerned neighbors found Mary Ann Elsner, a descendant of Carl Cleveland, Jr., to get the taxes paid and get the deed back.
“Fulton County is out of it. State law allows the lien holder to charge interest. If not the lienholder pays it off. The lienholder is then entitled to it.” McEnerny said.
McEnery added that American Lien offered Elsner $10,000 not to redeem the property. When she informed neighbors, Henry and Wanda Cline acquired the property to help preserve it as a cemetery.
Something changed. The Clines sold the land to their son-in-law Christopher Mills so he could build a home near the gravesites.
“I hate it,” said Larry Specht, a descendant. “It’s wrong, number one. To me it’s all about greed.”
Mills may not intend to disturb any graves, Specht said, “But because of the history there and the way the land [is] and the trees, there could be some grave markers that have not been found.”
A Facebook page had been created to help save Heard Cemetery.