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West Orange Times & Observer Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020 7 months ago

Ocoee seeks to acquire Hallowed Ground property

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City leaders voted to move forward with acquiring the historic African-American cemetery property through eminent domain.
by: Eric Gutierrez Staff Writer

After years of maintaining a property that was reportedly the site of an African-American cemetery, Ocoee leaders have decided to move forward with acquiring it.

Ocoee commissioners vote unanimously to move forward with acquiring the one-acre cemetery property located 441 Basking Ridge Court through eminent domain. The process is expected to take six to nine months and is expected to cost between $15,000 and $20,000. The Orange County Property Appraiser lists the value of the property as $9,270.

The property holds some historical significance to city residents. It was thought to be the site of an African-American cemetery, however, previous investigations from multiple organizations found that that most likely wasn’t the case. Regardless, the property is still considered — and also known as — Hallowed Ground. City leaders are hoping to make some passive improvements on the property such as installing a bench or gazebo.

“Former Mayor Lester Dabbs — who was instrumental in highlighting our cultural diversity within the city — had actually found a monument and collected a lot of history about that area being used as a cemetery,” Assistant City Manager Craig Shadrix said. ”The city commission a few years ago had decided to start maintaining that area and look at, possibly, putting a gazebo and a monument there. It is right in the middle of a residential area. … It’s going to look cleaner. We’re going to make improvements.”

Prior to coming to the decision to acquire the Hallowed Ground property through eminent domain, city staff spent months trying to locate and contact the owner or owners of record of the property to see if they would be willing to donate it to the city. In spite of those efforts, the city has not heard back from any owner or owners of record.

“We started this process … five or six months ago — trying to reach the owners,” City Attorney Scott Cookson said. “The first addresses that we (contacted) that were listed on the property appraiser records, those came back as undeliverable. We then contacted the owners based on the address in the vesting deed for the property, and those did come back undeliverable. We believe they were delivered, but we got no response from the owners.”

“Part of the issue is there was a set of families that originally owned that land, and now it’s been so many generations that there could 100 property owners — none of them really want anything to do with it,” Shadrix added. “It’s not like a traditional eminent domain where they may not be happy with it. It’s more of a matter of filing paperwork with the court to officially take ownership of it, but that will allow the commission to dedicate it as Hallowed Ground; as an African-American cemetery.”

Cookson added that aside from the regular maintenance the city has been doing on the property, the city should own it if before making improvements to it.

“If we’re going to do additional improvements to it — put a gazebo on it or park bench or make it more of an active area — then I think it’s best that the city acquire it,” Cookson said. “I think it’s a bad idea to make significant improvements to someone else’s property.”

Commissioner George Oliver agreed with Cookson’s thoughts.

“We’ve maintained that property for a while and I think that the city has done all of its due diligence to take us to this point,” Oliver said. “I would have to the city attorney that it would be a benefit to the city just to own the property.”

Eric Gutierrez is a staff writer with the West Orange Times & Observer and the West Orange Observer. He graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2015 with a double major in Journalism and Political Science. Contact Eric at...

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