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Published: Sunday, 10/3/2004

Homeowners bar caretakers from cemetery

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
In the heavily wooded Potter Cemetery, not a single headstone remains intact. In the heavily wooded Potter Cemetery, not a single headstone remains intact.
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NEWPORT, Mich. - Sue Donovan and Mark Armbruster are running out of patience and not sure what to do.

They are charged with trying to preserve one of Ash Township's most historic burial grounds - Potter Cemetery - but have been denied access to the landlocked cemetery since 2000 because of a dispute with homeowners who own the only easily accessible entrance - a private driveway.

"We're still at an impasse," said Ms. Donovan, secretary of the Friends of Potter Cemetery Association.

The 43-member group owns the one-acre cemetery near Newport, Mich., in Monroe County that is the burial site for from 80 to 200 Ash and Berlin township settlers, including six Civil War veterans.

"Our purpose," she said, "is to restore, maintain, and preserve Potter Cemetery."

That chore has been made impossible by the feud between the association and the Phillips, Laskey, Cousino, and Parker families who live along the gravel, quarter-of-a-mile long driveway they jointly own off Labo Road. The association also has feuded with another nearby landowner - Ted Fleszar - who also has denied the group access.

"We're not cold-hearted people," said Jason Cousino, one of the homeowners. "But we're not going to be taken advantage of."

In April, 2000, former Ash Township Clerk James Duffy brokered an agreement between the association and the homeowners that gave the association access to the cemetery. But the homeowners revoked the agreement that September after they say they spotted a vehicle speeding up the driveway and after visitors turned up at the cemetery without permission, as stipulated in the agreement.

The Friends of Potter Cemetery Association, which owns the cemetery, has been denied access to the site after a homeowners' group said the association broke rules of an access agreement. The Friends of Potter Cemetery Association, which owns the cemetery, has been denied access to the site after a homeowners' group said the association broke rules of an access agreement.
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Ms. Donovan said the speeding claim was true and the association addressed the issue with the offender. She denied the other accusation.

"We never went into that cemetery without permission," she said.

Not true, say the homeowners.

"There were numerous unauthorized visitations," said Charles Laskey.

Despite their differences and the cancellation of the agreement, the homeowners said they were still willing to work with association members to seek a compromise.

That idea flamed out after association members criticized the homeowners in several local newspaper articles and on a Potter Cemetery Web site. The homeowners wondered why the association members would criticize them publicly while they were seeking visitation rights.

"Ninety percent of the basis for the stories [they were telling] were non-factual," said Mr. Laskey, who has cut off any further discussion with the group, which he views with disdain. "If you lived in this neighborhood and you had a bad neighbor," he continued, "these people would be your bad neighbors."

Ms. Donovan, resolute in her cause, said the association had hoped Mr. Duffy and other Ash Township officials could intervene and resolve the dispute.

"We attended their meetings over the past five to six years and asked for their help, but didn't get any," she said.

But Ruth Phillips, whose backyard comes within 15 yards of the heavily-wooded cemetery, where not a single headstone is intact, recalled a township meeting several years ago that was attended by Ms. Donovan, Mr. Armbruster, and the homeowners. In the original agreement, the Phillipses had OK'd monthly Saturday visits, agreeing to be home on that day and allowing the visitors to park on their lawn.

"But at the township meeting they gave what we felt were a list of ultimatums, like granting 365 days-a-year access to the cemetery," Mrs. Phillips said. "They never thanked us for anything. They just complained."

Once the first agreement was cancelled, the association turned the following year to Mr. Fleszar, whose soybean field intersects the cemetery's west side. He granted them access and mowed a field to make their journey easier, but says no one ever showed up for an entire summer. When they finally did, Mr. Fleszar, considering their actions rude, said he told them not to return.

"I gave them a chance," he said.

Shelly Ratz, who replaced her father, Mr. Duffy, as township clerk, said she has talked with the Labo Road families on recent occasions to help resolve the issue, but has been unsuccessful.

A frustrated Ms. Donovan, whose husband has ancestors buried at Potter, and Mr. Armbruster, whose great-great uncle, Royal Potter, co-founded the cemetery and died in a Civil War prison, turned to the county's board of commissioners for help at a Sept. 14 meeting.

District 3 Commissioner Thomas Mell agreed to intercede. The following week, he met with the Labo Road homeowners and, later, the Potter group.

"I hear one side of the story from the landowners, and when I met with the association. I heard their side," he said.

"In my opinion, there has been a big misunderstanding, and I'm trying to work through it and clear it up."

Mr. Armbruster said he appreciates Mr. Mell's efforts.

"I think it's good if he can somehow negotiate a way in. That would be great. I think it's possible; he knows the people."

Mr. Laskey says Mr. Mell is wasting his time.

"It's just not going to happen," he said.

Mr. Mell said he will ask Mr. Fleszar Tuesday night, after a commissioner's board meeting, about allowing the association members to the enter his property from the north, off Sigler Road.

But Mr. Fleszar says he's in solidarity with the Labo Road homeowners.

"My thinking is the same as theirs," he said.

Ms. Donovan, who hasn't visited the cemetery in three years, said it's imperative the association gain access.

"It's a historical cemetery. It's deserves respect. You have some of the earliest settlers of Ash and Berlin townships there and [the] Civil War veterans. It needs to be restored not just for our families and this generation but for generations to come," she said.

She said if Mr. Mell fails, the association might resort to litigation or ask the courts to declare the cemetery abandoned, paving the way for disinternment.

Contact George J. Tanber at: gtanber@theblade.com or 734-241-3610.



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