Property owner: Time might be running out to expand Beaufort National Cemetery

June 12, 2010 

The Beaufort National Cemetery and the Lafayette Square Apartments in Beaufort. A Beaufort property owner says the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs might have missed its chance to expand Beaufort National Cemetery. Chuck Welsh, owner of Lafayette Square apartments, said he is now planning to redevelop the complex's 40 units and build 120 two-bedroom apartments.

JONATHAN DYER | THE BEAUFORT GAZETTE

  • • Created in 1864 by President Abraham Lincoln. • First in South Carolina and only one of three in the state, along with Florence National Cemetery and Fort Jackson National Cemetery in Columbia. • First soldiers buried there were men who died in nearby Union hospitals, as well as 117 Confederate soldiers. • More than 20,000 service members and their families from every American conflict are now entombed at the cemetery. • Notable burials include Charleston native Ralph Johnson, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Richard Nixon in 1968; Col. Donald Conroy, father of novelist Pat Conroy; and 19 Union soldiers from the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Source: Department of Veterans Affairs Those eligible to be buried in Beaufort National Cemetery include: • Any member of the U.S. armed forces who dies on active duty. • Any veteran who was discharged under conditions other than dishonorable. • Any citizen of the U.S. who, during any war in which the United States has or may be engaged, served in the armed forces of any government allied with the U.S. during that war, whose last active service was terminated honorably by death or otherwise. • The spouse or surviving spouse of an eligible veteran even if that veteran is not buried or memorialized in a national cemetery. In addition, the spouse or surviving spouse of a member of the Armed Forces of the United States whose remains are unavailable for burial is also eligible for burial.

Time may be running out to expand Beaufort National Cemetery, says Chuck Welsh, who owns five nearby acres on Lafayette Street.

For more than two years, Welsh has had discussions with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and other officials about selling his property, upon which the Lafayette Square apartment complex now sits and which is adjacent to the 147-year-old, 49-acre burial ground.

Welsh said those discussions came to a halt following the December 2009 death of Col. Jimmie Leach, a decorated World War II veteran who spearheaded the local campaign for cemetery expansion.

"When Jimmie Leach died, a lot of the energy behind this whole thing went away," Welsh said. "The whole balloon just deflated and it's so sad because he worked so tirelessly to make this happen."

Before his death, Leach pushed U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-SC, to introduce a bill in January 2009 to allow the VA to buy the land for about $3 million. The bill was referred the House Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, where it remains.

Welsh said he is running out of patience.

"I've given the people of Beaufort and the VA as much time as I have," said Welsh of Glyndon, Md. "I'd love for that property to go to the VA but I don't want to wait any longer."

Welsh said he plans to soon meet with engineers to discuss redeveloping the property and expanding the complex from 40 to 120 units.

Once he does, the property, which he has owned for 12 years, will be off the market.

"Once I start spending engineering dollars, I won't entertain anymore offers from the VA," Welsh said.

Wilson said he does not blame the property owner for his frustration.

"(Welsh) has not been the problem here," Wilson said. "I'm concerned and I'm frustrated. I know the VA has real estate acquisition funds. This should be able to happen without me having to pass a bill."

Officials from the VA could not be reached for comment last week.

Originally built on about 30 acres of land along Boundary Street, the cemetery grew by another 15 acres in 2006, 10 of which were donated by the National Guard, which had built an armory next to the site in 1963. The cemetery has burial space through 2030, according to officials.

With 20,000 servicemembers and their spouses currently buried at the cemetery, Wilson said he believes itmay run out of space before then, and that now is the time to purchase the additional acreage.

"2030 is right around the corner," Wilson said. "For all we know, 2030 might be 2025. I'm thinking of all those veterans currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan who will be the next big wave of veterans passing away. (Welsh's) is really the best parcel to square off the property."

If he does decide to move forward with redevelopment, Welsh said building on the property won't begin for another year, giving the VA one last chance to buy his land and expand the cemetery.

"This is really their last chance to buy my land," he said.

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