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Pasco County historian, Fivay High School plan clash over old cemetery

Work on Fivay High School continues nearby as historian Jeff Cannon stands in the area he thinks contains the Old 5-A Cemetery. The forgotten graveyard is at or near the school site, he says. His insistence has cost the project more than $100,000 in studies, staff research time and construction delays.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Work on Fivay High School continues nearby as historian Jeff Cannon stands in the area he thinks contains the Old 5-A Cemetery. The forgotten graveyard is at or near the school site, he says. His insistence has cost the project more than $100,000 in studies, staff research time and construction delays.

HUDSON

The walls are up, the parking lot paved, the access road built as the Pasco County School District steams ahead to open Fivay High School on what was a wooded lot along State Road 52 just months ago.

Jeff Cannon worries there's a cemetery under there.

Cannon, a local historian who has spent countless hours researching and documenting lost grave sites in other Pasco cemeteries, has pressed the school district every step of the way to prove its project wasn't disturbing the dead. His insistence has cost the project more than $100,000 in archaeological and geologic studies, staff research time and construction delays.

District officials say they've taken his concerns seriously, but suggest Cannon — who lives near the school — was motivated by NIMBYism as much as altruism.

"He has steadfastly fought the school's placement on this site since it was first considered for purchase," district construction director John Petrashek wrote to the County Commission in September after Cannon complained about construction traffic.

"Mr. Cannon has tirelessly made claims and statements about the site including allegations of a lost cemetery, a historic resources homestead, and the discovery of a tombstone in the Cricket Street right-of-way." Petrashek continued. "For the record, all of these accusations have proven to be false at a considerable expense to the taxpayers of Pasco County."

Cannon, 30, whose family first settled in the Hudson area in the 1870s, acknowledged his opposition to the school in the neighborhood: "We don't like it here, and we're going to make it known."

But he insisted his primary motivation remains preserving history.

"They're pioneers of this county," Cannon said of the unnamed dead buried in the yet undiscovered Old 5-A Cemetery. "They lived here. They worked here. They paid taxes here long before we came along. And in my opinion, they deserve respect for paving the way."

• • •

Cannon says he became interested in cemeteries when seeking his great-great-grandfather's grave. He learned from other preservationists what documents to search, and the investigative work got him pumped.

When the school district began considering sites near his Hudson home, Cannon already had been researching the area. He pulled out a World War II-era "Register of Deceased Veterans" that provided approximate directions to the Old 5-A Cemetery.

It appeared to be in the vicinity of where the district wanted to build. Cannon quickly notified county government.

After several meetings and studies, experts stated in late 2006 that a cemetery was not under the school site.

Cannon wasn't convinced.

The next month, he wrote a lengthy letter to the county opposing the school.

"The proposed access road … will lie extremely close to if not dissect the old 5-A cemetery," he wrote. "I demand that 'due diligence' be expended in its entirety on locating this cemetery."

The school district ordered a ground-penetrating radar survey, at a cost of $15,000. The final report, submitted in late March 2007, stated that the survey "did not identify any suspected gravesites within the accessible areas of the project site."

Cannon challenged the report's validity. The company used deep-penetrating radar, he said, possibly missing graves that would be located closer to the surface. At the same time, he also questioned the accuracy of an archaeological walk-through that discounted, among other things, a small white cross, bone fragments and a concrete slab — items Cannon believed could be part of the lost cemetery.

The site might contain items from its later years as a transient camp and a dumping ground, archaeologist James Ambrosino of Panamerican Consultants wrote in a March 2007 letter to the county. But signs of a cemetery just weren't there.

• • •

The controversy quieted until December 2008, when Cannon fired off a new letter to county planners demanding that work cease because old red bricks and other items had been found that could be historic.

The Florida Department of State, which oversees historic preservation, stepped in and ordered construction to halt while the site got another review.

Ambrosino was hired for $11,534. He found old toys, bottle caps, teaspoons, light bulbs and other discarded items. No cemetery.

The state said the work could again commence in February, but if anything turned up during the excavation, things should stop immediately. The district agreed to have an archaeologist on site to keep tabs on the project, something Cannon claims didn't always happen.

Days later, Cannon announced another discovery: a broken up gravestone.

The state asked Ambrosino to check it out. Here's what he discovered:

"The stones did not appear to have fallen in place, but seemed to have been moved into the area relatively recently."

Ambrosino pieced the fragments together, and by checking the Florida Death Index and the telephone book he learned that the stone had been stolen in 1993 from an African-American cemetery in Brooksville. The family has asked for the gravestone.

Cannon said he had no idea how it got there. He was disappointed it did not originate from the Old 5-A Cemetery.

But he's still looking.

"We know there is a cemetery out there," he said. "We need to find it so it is not impacted."

He and the neighbors also have kept up the heat on the construction process, raising concerns about such things as gopher tortoises and construction traffic. Cannon tours the perimeter of the site weekly on his four-wheeler, and expresses doubts about the district's findings since the public never saw what came out of the digging.

School Board Chairman Frank Parker, who represents the area, said he was pleased with the school's progress. He considered it unfortunate that the dispute has gone on so long.

"However well-intended, it cost the taxpayers additional money at a time when capital dollars are extremely short," Parker said.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Pasco County historian, Fivay High School plan clash over old cemetery 10/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 24, 2009 3:06pm]
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