MADISON — A southwestern Wisconsin town doesn't have to assume control of and maintain land that a group of people contends is an old cemetery where some of their ancestors were buried, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
At issue is a one-acre parcel of land that abuts Wildcat Mountain State Park in Vernon County. The group believes their ancestors were buried on the land prior to 1918, although there are no headstones or other grave markers anywhere on the land and no public roads that lead to it or pass by it.
The group asked Vernon County Circuit Judge Michael Rosborough in March 2014 to transfer ownership of the parcel to the Town of Forest. They cited a state law that requires towns to take ownership of abandoned or neglected cemeteries and maintain them if no authority exists to transfer their ownership and operation.
Rosborough granted the petition and issued an order transferring the parcel to the town to manage as a cemetery. The town didn't' comply, saying ownership remained uncertain. A state appeals court reversed Rosborough's ruling, finding that the petitioners failed to prove no authority exists that could transfer ownership.
The group asked the state Supreme Court to step in. The justices issued a unanimous ruling, saying the petitioners failed to prove the parcel is a cemetery.
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote that the United States initially transferred the parcel in 1871 to one Isaac Jones without any reference to it containing a cemetery. Furthermore, nothing exists to show that the parcel has been organized or operated as a cemetery by a cemetery authority or that such an authority was ever formed or mapped the land for a cemetery, she wrote.
The petitioners argue that an 1898 deed said the parcel was to be used only as a cemetery, Bradley noted. But she wrote that conveying property with the intention that it be used as a cemetery isn't enough to establish that one was formed.
The petitioners' attorney, Thomas Harnisch, said he hadn't seen the decision and had no immediate comment.