Superior Court Judge Michael Annis ruled Tuesday that Georgia Power can’t cut down trees in the Wrightsboro Road cemetery to put up transmission lines.
“I think that removing the trees would be a desecration of the gravesites,” Annis said.
The hearing was the result of a petition for declaratory judgement filed by Georgia Power against Columbia County Tax Commissioner Kay Allen, John R. Wilkins Sr., Brinson Wilkins and Marilyn Cooper – descendants of those buried in the cemetery, which covers close to an acre.
The property has changed hands several times since Confederate soldier George Washington King made the site next to Bellevue Cemetery his home. He constructed the cemetery, where he buried father-in-law and Choctaw Indian Wiley Taylor, in 1891.
The cemetery is the resting place for more than 10 people, including Allen’s great-great-grandfather, who was the county’s tax commissioner in the early 1900s. A partial archeological survey by Georgia Power located 10 unmarked graves, and more are likely on the property.
Each time the adjoining 45 acres were sold, the deed included an easement for descendants of those buried in the cemetery to use. The current owner, Marjorie Young, sold an easement to Georgia Power for an area along the border of her property, which includes the cemetery.
Though the King Cemetery easement is recorded, no one contacted the descendants about the construction. John Wilkins said he found a Georgia Power employee in the cemetery in the spring and has been trying to talk with company officials since.
The company filed for a temporary restraining order and a permanent injunction against the four descendants, who it said padlocked the fence around the cemetery.
Attorney James Purcell, who represented Georgia Power at the hearing, said any tree taller than or expected to grow over 15 feet would be cut.
“Trees would be cut for safety and maintenance,” Purcell said.
Purcell promised that no gravesites would be damaged, but Annis said it was impossible to remove the trees without damaging the burial sites.
Purcell argued that the families had only the right to use the cemetery, nothing more.
“If they cut the trees, it will never be the same,” Brinson Wilkins said of the cemetery, which has remained largely unchanged.
Annis ruled that Young had the right to grant the easement to Georgia Power but that the company could not do anything to disturb the families’ abilities to use and enjoy the cemetery.
“There’s more to a gravesite than a place to deposit a body,” Annis said. “It means something. It’s the totality of the setting.
Annis said Georgia Power can go onto the property but “can’t alter or change or do anything to disturb the peaceful enjoyment.”
Georgia Power attorneys would not comment on ongoing litigation.
John Wilkins buried his wife, Vicki, in the cemetery Sept. 30 and plans to be buried there himself.
“We’re happy today,” Wilkins said after the ruling. “But we know it’s not over.”
Georgia Power can still file to condemn the property to construct the lines.