Fire Place History Club
Preserving the Past for Future Generations
August 30, 2010
Martin Van Lith
Judge rules: Town of Brookhaven Must Resume Care of Historic Family Burying Grounds in Brookhaven and South Haven Hamlets
Following a decision of Justice Melvyn Tanenbaum of the New York State Supreme Court, the Town of Brookhaven, Long Island, NY, is required to resume care of nine historic family burying grounds in the hamlets of Brookhaven and South Haven.
The Town of Brookhaven had been caring for these burying grounds from as early as 1937, according to articles published in the Patchogue Advance, and it continued to do so for at least the next thirty years. By 1964, the Town was providing care for sixteen burying grounds in the hamlets of Brookhaven and South Haven, but it stopped performing most work on the cemeteries a few decades ago.
Under a number of laws enacted by the New York State legislature, Town governments have been given some minimal responsibilities regarding the care of neglected burying grounds. For such cemeteries, a Town is to remove the grass, brush and weeds twice each year and maintain “suitable fences.”
Members of the Fire Place History Club have been active in restoring damaged gravestones in historic family burying grounds and researching the lives of those interred in them. Those include Revolutionary War soldiers, a State Senator, a nationally recognized civil engineer, the Civil War Supervisor of the Town of Brookhaven, and many others important to the life and history of the residents of Fire Place Neck.
The Fire Place History Club’s efforts to preserve the grave markers has been made much more difficult because the Town had allowed trees and brush to overtake the burying grounds and failed to maintain the rights-of-way to them.
Over the last several years, the Club attempted to persuade the Town of Brookhaven to fulfill its ethical and legal responsibility and resume providing some minimal care for neglected family burying grounds. Months of effort by the group’s leader and chairman, Marty Van Lith, were to no avail. He scheduled meetings with Town officials, showed them the cemeteries, and informed them of the legal responsibilities the Town had under state law, but the Town repeatedly failed to resume its care of the historic sites despite its promises to do so.
Finally, on July 16, 2009, with the pro bono assistance of attorney Regina Seltzer of Bellport, the Club resorted to filing an Article 78 petition with the New York State Supreme Court regarding ten family burying grounds. An Article 78 filing seeks to have a government entity perform a function that it is legally obligated to perform.
Justice Melvyn Tanenbaum of the New York Supreme Court made his decision on August 20, 2010, and the decision was released last week. He ruled that the Fire Place History Club was correct in stating that state law requires the Town to care for nine of the ten cemeteries and directed the Town to resume its care for them.
Reggie Seltzer commented, “This was undoubtedly an easy decision for the Judge since the actions of the Town itself over many decades indicated that the Town understood it had a obligation to preserve these sites for the public.”
Marty Van Lith said, “The Fire Place History Club is looking forward to working with the Town of Brookhaven in maintaining and preserving these important historic cemeteries for the benefit of all residents, both present and future, of the Town.”
Members of the Fire Place History Club gathered at the Azel Hawkins Family Cemetery in Brookhaven Hamlet to celebrate the New York State Supreme Court decision that mandates the Town of Brookhaven to mow grass and keep brush and weeds in check at nine historic family cemeteries located in the area known as Fire Place Neck. Pictured are (from left): Gloria and Bob Brown, Marty Van Lith, Betty Budny, Richard Thomas, Ron Kinsella, Barbara Kresse, John Deitz, Diane Martens, Faith McCutcheon, Phoebe Downs and Eben Ludlow.
High resolution image at http://brookhavensouthhaven.org/cemeteries/AzelHawkins/100830/historyclubatazelhawkinscemetery.jpg