FREMONT -- Plans to build houses next to a Mission San Jose district cemetery were approved three years ago, but the recent sight of bulldozers clearing land for the project resurrected an old turf battle and unleashed alarming rumors about the tombstones' future.

But, like many a ghost story, much of the rumors have yet to be proven true.

Edenbridge Homes, a Los Altos developer, plans to construct 16 single-family residences by the end of next year on a 3.2-acre property next to St. Joseph's Cemetery, along Mission Boulevard. The sloping parcel next to the cemetery offers views of San Francisco Bay and Peninsula cities to the west and the Fremont hills to the east.

The parcel once was the home to 251 unmarked graves that were relocated six years ago and some neighbors say they are unhappy that houses will be built on former grave sites.

Joe Lonsdale, who lives next to the cemetery and opposed the project three years ago, said the church should not have built over land that once housed unmarked graves. "I don't think you should dig up bodies. The church shouldn't do that," he said. "To me, that's a cemetery."

But to city officials, it's an issue that was decided three years ago, when the Planning Commission and City Council rejected a recommendation from Fremont's Historical Architectural Review Board, and approved the development.

"The developer received all the approvals necessary to build a subdivision for developing 16 homes back in 2010," said Clifford Nguyen, a Fremont associate planner.

After that, the issue went dormant for years, only to arise again earlier this month, as construction crews began work there. The phone suddenly started ring off the hook at the St. Joseph rectory. There, longtime pastor, Monsignor Manny Simas, reassured worried callers inquiring whether it was true that the coffins containing their loved ones were being moved for home construction.

"That's not true, the cemetery is not being disturbed," said Simas, 79. "In fact, a fence is being built to separate it from the subdivision."

Lonsdale also believes there are even more unmarked graves at the site than has been reported.

Simas said the church followed all legal processes and sought advice from archeological consultants and experts such as the Catholic Funeral & Cemetery Services of the Diocese of Oakland.

"We contend that there are no burials there," Simas said.

Visitors to St. Joseph's Cemetery, a 1.8-acre parcel facing Mission Boulevard, can see why it has inspired so much emotion. It provides a glimpse into Fremont history, as tombstone years range from just a few years ago to the late 19th century -- the oldest is dated 1886. One grave site lists an army private "killed in action" in Europe in 1918, during World War I.

Today, Fremont is known for its large immigrant population. The same was true a century ago, judging by the cemetery's weathered tombstones, on which names such as Gomez, O'Connor, Simoni and Roumiguiere ("Native of France") are etched.

Simas said that the church also cherishes the cemetery. He said he is sorry that "misinformation has been distributed" about the cemetery, emphasizing that the church has no plans to alter it. "We'll continue to consider the cemetery to be a sacred place," he said.

An Edenbridge Homes representative declined to comment this week.

Another project opponent is Kristi Wilson, a 36-year-old Fremont resident whose parents have lived next to the site since 1988. "I feel like the church sold out," said Wilson, who attends Mass at St. Joseph's. "It was a nice piece of land and they had to disturb it by building giant homes, just shoving them wherever they can shove them."

She said the church should not have sold land so that homes could be built on what used to be unmarked graves. She also acknowledges that it is probably too late to stop the subdivision.

"They (the developer) have the permits, they're breaking ground," she said. "It may be a day late and a dollar short on the whole deal."

Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.