Lost cemetery proves costly for DVM in building new practice


Dr. Steve Dullard didn't expect to find a cemetery when he broke ground on his new veterinary practice.

LaSalle, Ill. — Unexpected costs can creep into construction projects, but Dr. Steve Dullard couldn't have anticipated the discovery of a 150-year-old cemetery when he went to break ground on a new veterinary practice.

Dullard, Dipl. ABVP, owner of Ancare Veterinary Clinic with locations in Mendota and Spring Valley, and president of the Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association (ISVMA) and past president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), has been planning to build his new practice since 2007.

In fact, he purchased a 202-acre plot that had been used as farmland for the last 100 years. It was marketed as ready-to-build with a retention pond. While city leaders had mentioned there was an old cemetery that had fallen off the books somewhere in that area, he felt it was safe to proceed.

Dullard says the property had last been purchased by a group of physicians who intended to build a practice. The group eventually fell apart, from what he was told, and a title search came up clean. After receiving his state permits to start construction, Dullard says he began clearing trees in November 2010. On the second day of clearing the trees, Dullard received notice from the state informing him that his property was the site of an old church cemetery.

"We were just clearing trees," Dullard says of his surprise at receiving the notice. "This was supposed to be a ready-build piece of property."

The sanctioned church cemetery was used from about 1835 until around 1857. At that time, it was allegedly dismantled by the Catholic Church and sold to some private land managers for profit. All the gravestones were removed, but Dullard says there were still roughly 1,400 unmarked grave shafts on the property.

Cattle had grazed and farmers had tilled the land for more than 100 years without a problem, and Dullard says even many of the old-timers around town knew nothing about the cemetery. It was on plat maps a long time ago, but disappeared at some point, and church documents claim all the remains in the cemetery were moved.

But about 70 percent of the grave shafts contained human remains, and Dullard says he has had to pay to excavate and move more than 700 remains so far.

He has been able to move enough of the remains to move forward with construction while work on the rest of the property continues, Dullard says. But re-interments had to stop in December 2011 because of the weather.

The discovery of the cemetery set Dullard's project back more than a year. He says he was able to work out an agreement with the state to contain the costs of relocating the remains in the cemetery. Otherwise, removal and reinternment costs would have been prohibitive.

"We don't know exactly where it's going to end," Dullard says. "In Illinois, there's a law called the Human Skeletal Remains Act. They basically require this really extensive archeological type of process. It is so cost-prohibitive, nobody could ever afford to do it."

But, ethically, he can't sell the property—for which he paid a premium price—without disclosing the cemetery issue.

The state mandates that if a cemetery is found on a property, the owner must strip all the topsoil and investigate the grave shafts individually at a cost of $1,000 to $3,000 per grave shaft. With the number of grave shafts on his site, that would have put Dullard's cost to mitigate the cemetery alone at between $1.4 million and $4.2 million.

"They make it so punitive cost-wise you could never deal with it. It kind of gets down to the point where you have to decide, are you going to make things so punitive for business where they can't do anything?" Dullard says. "I had to figure out some type of remedy."

So, pulling from his experience as the chair of the legislative committee for ISVMA, Dullard contacted his state representative, who introduced a law to curtail some of the powers of the Human Skeletal Remains Act. He was able to work out a deal with the state to re-inter the remains using local volunteers, but he still had to pay to have two archaeologists on site at all times.

"There's always latitude in the way laws are done," says Dullard. "One of the good things about this whole deal is, it's an example of how good government will work when presented with a sensitive situation. We found a happy medium to do it. It's actually been an excellent learning experience for a number of universities."

A local, retired history teacher even came by with a group of students to give a lesson on the era in which the cemetery was used. The LaSalle County Historical Society has been helping, too, noting what artifacts are found in the graves before they are re-interred with the remains. But, sadly, there is no way to identify any of the remains, Dullard says.

The community has been supportive of the project, too, and Dullard says he believes the way in which he approached the problem helped divert a potential public relations nightmare.

"I had to figure out a way that was going to be a sensitive and professional method of taking care of the problem," he says. "I just dealt with this problem head-on as the story unfolded and things happened. I had probably about 98 percent support in the area."

He still has to go back to the state to seek an extension on the project, since the re-interment process has taken so long. Dullard says he has already asked the state for the extension and doesn't anticipate any more hurdles.

The next step will be to see whether he recovers any of his costs. He may be able to go back to the seller.

"The way the whole thing was represented to me is not the way it is," Dullard says. "But one thing I learned—there is no guarantee. Use your lawyer. Someone may have seen a red flag for me. It comes down to that fact that you still have to rely on people's honesty about a lot of things."

Today's laws discourage people from being totally honest because of the cost involved, he says, adding that a friend of his found 23 graves in the middle of one of his fields. They way things were in the 1800s, people didn't travel far to bury their dead. As Illinois becomes more developed, many of these smaller, undocumented cemeteries are being discovered, he says.

"This is actually something that's repeating itself day in and day out in all the communities," he says.

But Dullard says the hurdle has turned into a positive experience, and his plans to build a third practice are still moving forward. The practice's foundation has been poured, and he hopes to open within the next nine months. The new practice will serve as a centralized hospital for his other two practices, located about seven and 15 miles away. Those practices will focus on wellness care once the new clinic opens.

Dullard says he hopes his experience, although difficult and costly, will help other veterinary practice owners to keep moving forward with their practices despite setbacks.

"We just have to be more diligent about how we get stuff done," he says.

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