Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Thomas Addresses Brookhaven Town Board on Cemetery Maintenance Lawsuit

On Tuesday, September 7, 2010, Richard Thomas addressed the Town Council of the Town of Brookhaven with the following message concerning the Fire Place History Club's lawsuit over cemetery maintenance. Also present were John Deitz and Marty van Lith. Marty added his own extemporaneous comments.

My name is Richard Thomas. I reside in the hamlet of Brookhaven, which, until 1871, was known as Fire Place.

I wish to address the Town Council tonight to say how pleased I am that the Town will soon resume its care and maintenance of the historic burying grounds located in Brookhaven and South Haven hamlets.

New York has long recognized the need to maintain these historic burying grounds. The state legislature first passed a law placing the responsibility to do so with the Towns in March 1826. In 1901, at the urging of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the state legislature clarified the law, making it clear that it is the duty of Town governments to mow the weeds and remove the brush from any abandoned cemeteries within the Town once each year.

And in 1909, the state legislature stated that it was the responsibility of the Town to provide for the preservation, care and fencing of any cemetery, by whomsoever owned, if there were no longer any corporation or trustees who might care for it.

The Town of Brookhaven was faithful in carrying out its legal and moral responsibility for many years.

An article in the Patchogue Advance in 1937 reported that the Town Highway Department was again engaged in removing the brush from twelve graveyards in Brookhaven and South Haven.

And in 1964, the Town was regularly issuing a purchase order to a private contractor to haul away debris and cut the weeds in thirteen burying grounds in Brookhaven and South Haven.

These sites, which long ago ceased to be used for burial purposes, continue to provide a link to our past and have great historical value, since in them are interred patriots of the Revolutionary War and leaders of the Town of Brookhaven.

They are no longer private family burying grounds, but have become public historic sites.

They have been used by our local schools to educate students about local history and are a rich resource for local and Town historians.

I do not know why or how it came about that the Town forgot about it’s moral responsibility to care for these historic sites, but sometime after 1970, it appears to have done so.

The Fire Place History Club contacted officials in the Parks Department beginning in 2005.

While these public servants were quick to acknowledge that it was their duty to care for the historic cemeteries, and made repeated promises to begin doing so again, they somehow never actually managed to get any weeds mowed or any brush removed from a single cemetery.

First they claimed they had forgotten where the cemeteries were, so the Deputy Parks Commissioner was given a tour. Nothing happened.

Each year the trees that had sprouted up in the cemeteries grew larger, and after each winter more grave markers were found to be broken and destroyed by fallen limbs.

In these burying grounds are buried eleven who fought in the Revolutionary War, and also Town Supervisors and a President of the Board of Trustees of the Town.

In the Carmans cemetery is buried Samuel Carman Jr. who was a Trustee of the Town in 1827 and elected President of the Board of Trustees of the Town in 1849.

In 2003, his grave stone was still fully intact. By 2008, due to a falling tree in this cemetery — that has been long neglected by the Town — his grave marker was found smashed into eight pieces.

Finally, an Article 78 was initiated.

I think the citizens of your Town would be astonished to discover that the Town decided to pay a Town attorney to fight the Article 78.

For the cost of assigning a lawyer to the case, the Town could have cared for all the cemeteries for years.

Just as shocking as the Town’s disregard for its own history, the Town’s filing in response to the Article 78 was surprisingly ignorant of the long history of state law regarding the responsibility of Town governments in this matter.

Also, by failing to acknowledge that the Town had indeed preserved and maintained these historic sites for a period of forty years between 1930 and 1970, and perhaps for an even much longer time, the Town seemed to be attempting to mislead the Judge as to the facts in this matter.

The Town had long recognized by its own actions that what had formerly been private family graveyards had long ago ceased to be used for that purpose and had acquired a public nature by their use by the schools and citizens for historical purposes.

They have had no known private owners for decades and none have had any private trustee to care for them, so to claim that they were private cemeteries was disingenuous, to say the least.

Judge Melvyn Tanenbaum of the New York State Supreme Court of Suffolk County was not, however, misled. On August 20th, he ordered the Town of Brookhaven to perform the cemetery maintenance required by New York State law. We look forward to the day (which, according to the Judge, is to be before November 18th of this year), when the Town will be resuming its maintenance of these cemeteries so important to the history of Brookhaven Town.


Anonymous said...

I don't believe I know Mr. Thomas, but I thank him for writing such a clear, incisive piece that explains the problem precisely. Bravo!


Hamlet Reporter said...

Dr. Richard Thomas is a retired physicist who worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory. His research into New York State law on the responsibilities of Towns vis-à-vis abandoned cemeteries provided much of the content for the Fire Place History Club's legal briefs.

Anonymous said...

Richard -

That was a masterful, powerful statement. Should I ever again need a speech writer...

Thank you for so eloquently representing the History Club.