Developer moving ahead on archeological site

MIDDLEBOROUGH — A developer has notified the Massachusetts Historical Commission that he intends to proceed with his long-held plan to build a subdivision on land in Middleborough that some believe was the site of an ancient Native American village.

The decision by Elliot R. Schneider, principal of Sharon-based AGS Development, has stirred concerns among some town officials and others trying to save the property from development because of mounting evidence that it includes a valuable archeological site. The local Planning Board had permitted Schneider’s proposal to build nine houses on the land in 2005, but the project was put on hold while archeologists survey the parcel and prepare a report for the state commission. 

Brian McNiff, spokesman for the state commission, said the proposed subdivision is subject to the state’s burial laws, which prescribe what developers have to do if they find burial remains. Three Native American gravesites have been found on the property along the Nemasket River near Plymouth Street, according to Middleborough’s planning director.

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“We can’t stop him from building” on land where remains are not found, McNiff said. “The MHC’s role is to ensure that a qualified archeologist does the archeology and the work is done in a professional manner. The MHC also assists the town in its review. The developer has already donated a preservation restriction on the pertinent portions in the property.”

Schneider did not respond to calls and e-mails from the Globe for comment.

According to the preservation restriction filed at the Plymouth County Registry of Deeds, Schneider agreed to fence off three unmarked gravesites on his parcel and cover them with a 4-foot mound of soil. The plans show a septic system 5 feet from one grave, another grave in a backyard, and the third in a front yard. The restriction also includes archeological monitoring during construction and observing a 25-foot no-touch zone around the burial sites. The 2009 agreement describes the site as one with rare and outstanding cultural, historical, archeological, and scientific qualities that are not limited to the graves.

Jane Lopes, chairwoman of the local Historical Commission, said Schneider will meet with her board on Tuesday to discuss his plans. Middleborough’s planning director, Ruth M. Geoffroy, and conservation agent Patricia J. Cassady plan to attend.

“We want to know what it will take to preserve this site,” Geoffroy said.

Planning Board chairman Michael J. Labonte said there may be little way to stop construction if Schneider insists. “The Planning Board approved this subdivision because it met all the rules and regulations,” Labonte said. “We didn’t have much choice. Since then, we’ve had it appraised and made an offer to the developer.”

Geoffroy said the town partnered with the national Archeological Conservancy and offered Schneider $500,000 for the 24 acres. When Schneider didn’t accept the offer, Geoffroy proposed a plan to cluster the new houses away from the area believed to have been occupied by the village and pay him for any lots that weren’t developed. Schneider did not accept that proposal, nor did he make a counteroffer, she said.

This isn’t the first time the town tried to buy a Schneider project. In 2002, the town paid him and his partners $1 million for 100 acres on Fuller Street to stop a proposed 72-unit affordable-housing project.

Experts say Schneider’s site was a Native American village inhabited 6,000 to 7,000 years ago in the Archaic to Early Woodland and Middle to Late Woodland periods, and as recently as 700 years ago, said Curtiss Hoffman, an archeologist and chairman of the department of anthropology at Bridgewater State University. Excavations have found Indian burials, pottery shards, an effigy pestle, stone tools, projectile points, remains of a longhouse, and dome-shaped homes called wetus, Hoffman said.

Although he is not part of the team surveying Schneider’s project, Hoffman has worked his own dig in Middleborough for the past 10 years and is acquainted with the site and the artifacts it has yielded. “It is one of the few examples that we have in the region of an intact village site,” he said. “It’s in relatively good condition beneath the plow zone. It is important. Absolutely.”

Hoffman said the archeological community is eagerly awaiting the survey results, which are in limbo until radio carbon dating is done on a selection of artifacts. More money is needed to cover the testing, which can cost up to $500 for each test. “The developer refused to pay and the report can’t be completed,” Hoffman said.

Jim Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the executive director of the state’s Commission on Indian Affairs, said he considers Schneider’s parcel historically very significant.

“I would like to see that preserved — it is special,” he said. But beyond the requirement for the developer to leave the graves undisturbed, there is little anyone can do to stop the project, Peters said. “This is the unfortunate reality we deal with in America.”

Schneider must abide by the state’s “unmarked burial law” — leaving all graves in place and protected, Peters said. “It’s what the law allows; you can’t deny the property owner. He’s graciously agreed not to build on the burials,” Peters said.

There was an effort by state tribes to buy the property, but Peters said it was abandoned when the economy soured.

According to assessor records, Schneider paid $835,00 for the 24-acre site. Geoffroy said the developer has already sold four street-front lots.

LaBonte said the Planning Board is “not trying to stop development” on the land. “But let’s think before we start to rip the site apart,” he said. “Once the backhoes get in, there’s the potential to destroy an archeologically important site. I don’t think anyone wants that.”

Middleborough Police Chief Bruce D. Gates said he has first-hand knowledge that Native Americans lived on the site: He has been finding artifacts there since the 1960s, when his father leased nearby fields. “I remember my father would plow the fields and find arrow heads. I still have them,” he said.

Hoffman said it is not known whether the site was a summer camp or used year-round. There’s evidence the site could be the village of Nemasket: It is on a major river corridor and near river falls that would aid in catching the native alewife during its springtime migration, he said.

The presence of a longhouse and 26 other permanent structures could indicate year-round occupation of the site, but Hoffman said more study is needed before any conclusions can be drawn.

He said the presence of a longhouse on the site is very unusual, because the Iroquois of New York typically built that type of structure.