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 Oakland County Commissioner Shelley Goodman Taub, District 12, has been working to get the historical  abandoned cemetery maintained for several years.

Oakland County Commissioner Shelley Goodman Taub, District 12, has been working to get the historical abandoned cemetery maintained for several years.

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki

County commissioner struggles to clean up abandoned cemetery

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published January 21, 2019

 The Payne Waugh Cemetery, dating back to the early to mid-1800s, was abandoned by family heirs over generations.

The Payne Waugh Cemetery, dating back to the early to mid-1800s, was abandoned by family heirs over generations.

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki


BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP — To passers-by, the little corner of land off of Square Lake Road, just outside of the Heathers condominium complex, might look like a crummy, overgrown mess.

For the most part, that’s what it is.

When a resident of the Heathers approached Oakland County Commissioner Shelley Goodman Taub about the eyesore a few years ago, Taub went to work on getting the little plot — less than an acre — cleaned up for the neighbors.

But the task wasn’t as easy as she had hoped, and what resulted was a mystery the commissioner hopes to put to rest this year.

Fed up neighbors and a plot with no address
It was around the time that the Michigan Department of Transportation began making plans for the Interstate 75 modernization project in 2015. The department held an information meeting at Bloomfield Township Hall to get residents up to date on the work that would be happening in the area, namely to the I-75/Square Lake Road interchange. Taub attended the meeting that would impact her district and was pulled aside by a resident afterward.

“That’s the story of my life,” Taub laughed. “‘Oh, and by the way.’ That’s how I hear about a lot of things.”

The resident said that not only was Square Lake Road outside of the Heathers a mess, but there was a piece of land overrun with dead trees and ground cover that backed up to the complex. He had contacted the Heathers maintenance staff, but they couldn’t help — it’s not on their property.

Adjacent to the land is a little house the size of a tool shed, and inside is utility equipment. So Taub went to work to find out which utility owned the tiny house, and she learned that it belongs to AT&T. But AT&T doesn’t own the spot of land next door to it.  

She moved on to Bloomfield Township, and that’s where things got interesting, she said.

“This land doesn’t even have a sidwell number,” she said, referring to a parcel identification number. “It’s not on the tax roll. I had no idea what to do.”

Where there’s a Waugh, there’s a way
It took a little more digging — literally — and beneath the fallen branches and thick myrtle was a surprising find: graves. There are no markers, and indicates that the tombstones were removed in the 1950s after being repeatedly vandalized by local teenagers. It’s believed that those markers are at the bottom of a man-made lake inside the Heathers property.

According to records from the Daughters of the American Revolution, one of the graves belongs to Clarinda Waugh, and that was a key find for Taub. The Waugh name led to a connection with the Payne family, and Taub realized that the land is a cemetery — and a private, family cemetery at that.

She hit the history books, along with an old map of Oakland County in its infancy, and learned that the families at rest there are the Paynes and the Waughs. According to her maps, the Payne Waugh Cemetery was located in that spot nearly two centuries ago.

“The Paynes, I found out, came to Michigan in 1827 from upstate New York. I think they found the southeast Michigan climate better; there’s not as much snow,” she said. “That’s about 10 years before we became a state. So, there’s really no indication that there were settlers in Oakland County before this family.”

Since there was a legal provision during that time that private cemeteries were exempt from state taxes, there’s no sidwell number and essentially no one to claim ownership of the land.

That is, besides the township. Or the family heirs.

Dangerous and disrespectful
Clarinda Waugh has some heirs living today, Taub discovered through an ancestry website, including a man on the west side of the state and another person in New York. But they’re not interested in maintaining a plot of land that belonged to ancestors they never knew, Taub said.

Bloomfield Township isn’t particularly interested in taking over the property either, according to Supervisor Leo Savoie.

“I’m not sure if we legally could or if we would want to. It’s just going to cost us money to maintain it,” he said. “That said, it is close enough to the Barton House and Craig log cabin that it could possibly be incorporated into Preservation Bloomfield.

Sue Nine, of Preservation Bloomfield, said taking on the cemetery is hardly as simple as signing a deed to the land, even if the decision made it through the nonprofit historical society’s board of directors.

“I’m definitely not saying we wouldn’t have an interest in assuming the land, because I don’t know, but I guess it would be safe to say that we would be open to hearing about the land, what our obligations would be if we assumed ownership, would the land be available for additional burials — hundreds of questions come into my head,” Nine said in an email. “I know that cemeteries come with perpetual obligations for obvious reasons, so this piece of property is interesting from the point of view that its ownership has been lost.”

Taub suggested that whether a nonprofit takes over the land or the township or the county, she hopes that volunteers will pitch in to maintain it.

“I’m sure a contractor would be willing to clean up these trees, and maybe the Scouts would come in and keep it maintained from time to time,” she said. “I’m concerned, because you just don’t do this to the dead. I don’t care what religion you belong to — we all deserve better than this.”

Beyond honoring some of Oakland County’s earliest residents, Taub is concerned about safety on the overgrown property, suggesting that it could be a fire hazard.

“All of this is dead,” Taub said, pointing to the downed trees and shrubbery. “There are power lines hanging over it all, and right behind is the Heathers. And they’re made of wood. That’s all wood.”

Taking down red tape
If the township isn’t able or willing to take over the cemetery, Taub said, she wants the county to step in. But to do that, Michigan law would need to be changed. Before the midterm election, Taub had been talking with then-state Rep. Mike McCready, who served three years in the state House representing District 40 and lost his bid in November for the District 12 Senate seat.

With new faces in Lansing, Taub said she’s waiting to find out which legislators will be assigned to applicable committees that could help her.

“My intent is to have the law changed so if the township won’t take over an abandoned cemetery, the county can. An either/or kind of thing. Right now, only the township Board (of Trustees) can vote on what to do with an abandoned cemetery, and I would like for it to be a decision of the county, or a combination of the county and the township board,” she explained. “(Lansing) may disavow this. I may be in the minority — I have no clue.”