Judge blocks attempt to move graves for airport development

Sunday, April 20, 2008

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A Platte County judge has ruled that the graves of homestead pioneers scattered across Kansas City International Airport property will stay where they are.

The decision stops a city-backed plan to relocate the numerous 1800s-era cemeteries to make way for economic development.

In a ruling issued late Thursday, Circuit Court Judge Abe Shafer said the city had "failed to demonstrate good cause for the disinterment and movement of the individual remains," adding that the city didn't provide evidence showing the public would benefit from moving the graves.

Shirley Kimsey, a local historian whose family is buried in one of the cemeteries, welcomed the decision.

"Once a cemetery is established, it's supposed to stay where it is forever," Kimsey said. "I was quite sure that the judge was going to do the right thing."

Aviation director Mark Van Loh said city officials were disappointed but still planned to build fences around the cemeteries, which they said are frequently vandalized and used for illegal dumping.

In March, city officials testified that relocating the graves would help generate additional development on the 7,000 acres of vacant property surrounding the airport north of the city.

For example, one cemetery, holding the family members of pioneer Waller L. Brightwell, is on 300 acres intended for a proposed motor sports park.

Rick Watkins, one of the proposed park's principle owners, said plans for the park would move ahead.

"We can design around it," he said, adding that he and the other developers will meet with aviation officials to begin the process next week.

The other cemeteries are in an area that could be opened to development whenever state officials extend the Tiffany Springs Parkway to Interstate 435. There's no timetable for that extension.

In his three-page ruling, Shafer said the lease between the airport and the Kansas City International Motor Sports Park didn't require the cemeteries' removal.

He also blocked the city from disturbing or removing any unmarked graves "in, around and in the vicinity of the cemeteries."

Platte County attorney Robert H. Shaw, who Shafer appointed to represent any unknown dead in the case, said Friday he too agreed with the decision.

A federal lawsuit filed by a Kansas City woman whose ancestors are buried in a cemetery on airport property but not part of the relocation plan is still pending.

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