VDOT moving cemetery to make way for Park and Ride

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SALEM (WSLS 10) - In order to expand a park and ride area in Salem, VDOT is having to excavate and move 22 graves sitting next to it.

At this point, no one knows who the graves belong to, or if there are any living descendants.

VDOT says it has obtained a court order to complete the work, but some members of the community still aren't happy about it.

No one seems to know the exact age of the Dooley-Blankenship Cemetery in Salem off of interstate 81 exit 140, but it was first re-discovered when the park and ride area was first put into place back in the 1970's.

Now, archaeologists have worked to excavate what's left of the people buried here, which for some in the community, creates an ethical problem.

VDOT spokesman Jason Bond says the $2.6 million dollar expansion is necessary.

"This parking lot is extremely well-used. It serves as a bus stop for the Smart Way bus and it's just reached its capacity. It's always filled, there's just not enough spaces there," said Bond.

With roads on three sides of the lot, Bond says expanding into the graveyard, that covers about a tenth of an acre, was the only option.

"We try to avoid it, we take steps to design around it, we always try to avoid where we can, but in this case we really didn't have a choice," said Bond.

Before beginning the dig, Bond says VDOT made sure everything was taken care of legally.

"We obtain a court-order that shows that we are permitted to do this work. We also coordinate with the Department of Historic Resources. In this case, the site was not eligible for inclusion in the National Register for Historic Places," said Bond.

Bond says they placed a notice in the paper asking if anyone had relatives buried there, but got no responses.

Even so, he says they've received complaints.

One man, who used to live right across the street, says he's against the move.

"It doesn't make any sense to me. We don't need a sidewalk, we don't even need a bigger park and ride, but these people, they were laid to rest, so does this really have to happen?" said Randy Grisso.

Bond says through the excavation, the team uncovered some personal items and human teeth, which will all be transferred to a vault in the East Hill Cemetery, but he says he wants people to know it was done as carefully as possible.

"I don't want people to think that we just went out there and encountered it and needed to move it and that highway workers are just relocating a cemetery. There is quite a bit of research that goes into that, there are archaeologists on-scene that are coordinating that," said Bond.

Bond says the archaeological firm Louis Berger was paid $230,000 dollars for the excavation.

He expects construction on the park and ride expansion to begin next year.