Although the details remain under wraps, the city of Atmore and the owner of a local cemetery have apparently reached a compromise in an ongoing flap that began in 2000, eventually died down, then flared up again last year when the roadway that services the cemetery was effectively closed to traffic.
Atmore Mayor Jim Staff and Serenity Gardens owner Charles Jackson each said last week that they had reached a tentative agreement under which the cemetery, which is adjacent to Atmore Municipal Airport, will be more readily accessible to funeral processions.
Jackson and Staff met May 24, behind closed doors at Atmore City Hall, with Daniel Caitlin of U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne’s staff in an effort to hash out an agreement that was acceptable to both parties.
The cemetery saga’s latest installment stems from the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to limit or block access to the unnamed city street that leads into the cemetery from U.S. 31 and connects to Airport Road on its other end.
Jackson said last week that he and the city had gotten over the earliest enmity and had reached a point of peaceful co-existence until the final phase of the airport improvement project began in 2016.
“Since 2007, there had been no issues until last year, when they began the final phase,” Jackson said. “The city put up yellow chains on both ends of the road and stopped anybody from using the roadway. You couldn’t get into the cemetery at all.”
Jackson said he removed the chains, kept them in his truck for nearly three years, then piled them in the doorway to Staff’s office at city hall last week. In response to the removal of the chains, a mitigation plan developed by the city’s engineering firm, Mobile-based Volkert Inc., and approved by the FAA directed that “Road Closed” signs be placed in the center of the roadway at two spots.
The plan included that one of the signs be placed 290 feet from the center of U.S. 31, allowing a degree of access to funeral attendees and those who wanted to place flowers on the graves of loved ones. The rest of the road, though, is to remain closed.
“The funeral procession can get in, except that there’s not enough room for the hearse to get by those signs,” said Jackson, who purchased Serenity Gardens and Brewton’s Green Acres Cemetery out of bankruptcy in 1989.
The mayor said the present situation could have been avoided had the cemetery owner simply left the chains in place.
“There was a hook on one end of the chains, so all he had to do was unhook it, drop it on the ground, then put it back when the funeral was over,” said Staff. “Instead, he took the chains down, so the FAA closed the road.”
In a bit of cold comfort, Jackson was able to point out that the signs, each of which stood 10-feet tall, violated the FAA’s requirement that no structure taller than 36 inches could be positioned in the airport’s landing vortex. The sign posts have been cut to 36 inches, but remain in the center of the road.
As a result of last week’s meeting, Jackson said he felt good that the situation at Serenity Gardens would soon improve.
“The city is going to take corrective action to avoid further issues,” he said. “If they don’t allow funeral processions to come in there, there’s going to be a public outcry. Hearses should be able to get in there once the corrective action is taken.”
Jackson’s brother, Carl, said last Friday that the gently sloped roadsides prevent all but the most nimble cemetery visitors from being able to attend a funeral or visit a gravesite.
“What scares me is that these older people, trying to get out of their cars, are going to roll down that hill,” he said. “Or, on the other side, they’re going to step out in front of somebody.”
Jackson said he is pleased at the impending improvement in the situation at the cemetery but added that he didn’t really expect things to immediately go from bleak to rosy, especially with the federal government’s involvement.
“I don’t think it will ever really be over,” he said. “(Staff) was so cooperative in the meeting, but we’ll just have to wait and see.”
The mayor hopes the congressional aide and Byrne will be able to persuade the FAA that the dispute will never be resolved unless the agency becomes a party to a compromise solution.
“I hope Caitlin can get the FAA to back off a little,” he said. “If they don’t, and (Jackson) keeps pushing this thing, he’s going to wind up with a landlocked cemetery, and I don’t think he wants that.”
Jackson’s main concern, he said, was in outing a halt to rumors that his business had been closed down.
“The biggest impact to me is the public knowing that the city or the FAA didn’t close down my business,” he said.