Norwich — About 40 opponents of a proposed Burger King gathered Thursday evening in the historic colonial burying ground to hear historic preservation advocates express concerns that the project could impact the cemetery and that early burials could exist on the other side of the 19th century stone wall that divides the properties.
A public hearing on the proposed drive-thru accompanying the Burger King will continue at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Council Chambers at City Hall. The Commission on the City Plan continued the hearing that started Aug. 21 to allow commission members time to visit the property.
The rally, hosted by representatives from the Norwich Historical Society and the Society of the Founders of Norwich, urged people to attend the public hearing. Historical Society consultant Regan Miner said attorney Mark Kepple will testify on behalf of the historical society at the hearing.
The Burger King would be built on three properties at 61, 63 and 65 Town St., where three 1920s-era vacant houses are located. The proposal calls for excavating the steeply sloped ground and building the restaurant and drive-thru at street level on Town Street — level with the adjacent commercial development, the Meadows Shopping Center and a Bank of America on either side of the properties.
Local gravestone expert David Oat called the ancient burial ground “hallowed ground” where the founders of Norwich are buried, saying it contains “the country’s first folk art”: gravestone motifs and inscriptions, telling the stories of several families and their religious faith, created by 21 different stone carvers.
Developer Amaral Revite Corp. said the stone wall would be preserved in the project, with a buffer zone of 20 to 40 feet from the development. Oat told the crowd gathered Thursday that the wall was built in the 1800s and asked that an archaeological survey with ground-penetrating radar be done before any disturbance of the property. Oat also said there should be a 50-foot buffer between the burying ground and the proposed development.
“The folks who lived here started burying people in the late 1600s and 1700s, so I can guarantee you there are burials on the other side of this wall,” Oat said, “so a survey with ground-penetrating radar would bring that out.”
Burger King project attorney William Sweeney countered that argument during the Aug. 21 hearing. Sweeney said land records show that the property was described as a house lot in the late 1600s, with continuous ownership by Norwich settlers, their descendants and buyers over the three centuries. He said there was no evidence that the property ever was part of the burial ground.
The news conference included several people dressed in historical costumes and carrying signs protesting the Burger King. One woman held a sign saying: “Norwitches Against Big Business.” A young girl’s sign read, “Preserve the Past for My Future.” Another sign, in the shape of a colonial-style gravestone, said: “Here Lies the History of the United States of America.”