The sanctity of King Cemetery is safe, for now.
Superior Court Judge Michael Annis ruled Tuesday that Georgia Power is not allowed to cut down trees in the cemetery on Wrightsboro Road to construct transmission lines.
“I think that removing the trees would be a desecration of the grave sites,” Annis said.
The hearing was the result of a petition for declaratory judgement filed by Georgia Power against Columbia County Tax Commissioner Kay Allen, John R. Wilkins Sr. Brinson Wilkins and Marilyn Cooper – descendants of those buried in the .91-acre cemetery.
The property changed hands several times since Confederate soldier George Washington King made the site next to Bellevue Cemetery his home. He constructed the cemetery, where he buried his father-in-law and Choctaw Indian, Wiley Taylor, there in 1891. The cemetery is the final resting place for more than 10 people, including Allen’s great-great-grandfather, who also was the county’s tax commissioner in the early 1900s. A partial archeological survey performed by Georgia Power located another 10 unmarked graves and more are likely on the property.
Each time the adjoining 45 acres were sold, the deed included an easement for use of the descendants of those buried in the cemetery. The current owner, Marjorie Young, sold an easement to Georgia Power for an area along the border of her property, which includes the cemetery.
Though the King Cemetery easement is recorded, no one contacted the descendants about the upcoming construction. John Wilkins said he discovered a Georgia Power employee in the cemetery in the spring and has been attempting to talk with Georgia Power officials since.
The company filed the petition for declaratory judgement as well as a temporary restraining order and a permanent injunction against the four descendants, who company officials said padlocked the fence around the cemetery.
Attorney James Purcell, who represented Georgia Power at the hearing, said any tree taller than or any expected to grow taller than 15 feet would be cut.
“Trees would be cut for safety and maintenance,” Purcell said. “Trees in the easement have to be cut.”
Despite promises from Purcell that no grave sites will be damaged in construction and tree removal, Annis said it was impossible to remove the trees withouth damaging the burial sites.
Purcell argued that the families had no ownership rights, but only the right to use the cemetery, nothing more.
“It will never be the same,” Brinson Wilkins said of the cemetery that has remained largely unchanged in 122 years. “If they cut the trees, it will never be the same.”
Annis ruled that Young had the right to grant the easement to Georgia Power, but the company could not do anything to disturb the families’ abilities to use and enjoy the cemetery.
“There’s more to a grave site than a place to deposit a body,” Annis said. “It means something. It’s the totality of the setting."
Annis added that Georgia Power can go onto the property, per their easement, but “can’t alter or change or do anything to disturb the peaceful enjoyment.”
Georgia Power attorneys would not comment on the ongoing litigation.
John Wilkins buried the remains of his late wife, Vicki, in the cemetery Sept. 30 and plans to one day be buried there himself.
After fighting to save the cemetery, he’s happy with the judgement.
“We’re happy today,” Wilkins said. “But we know it’s not over.”
Georgia Power can still file to condemn the property to construct the lines.