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Aug 5, 2009 2:52 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Trustees again deny land swap with Westhampton Cemetery

Aug 5, 2009 2:52 PM

The Southampton Town Trustees reiterated their emphatic rejection of a proposed land swap with the Westhampton Cemetery this week and defended themselves against public criticism over the issue in recent months.

The Trustees said they understood the cemetery’s needs to expand the graveyard, which has fewer than 30 burial plots remaining, and stated that they would be willing to help its board find another property that the cemetery could use in the area. Still, they stressed that environmental concerns and a host of legal roadblocks prevent them from making any exchange involving a 2-acre parcel that they own, or from allowing another nearby property also under their jurisdiction from being used to access the landlocked lot owned by the cemetery association.

The Trustees had told the cemetery association that they would not make the land swap back in January but raised the issue again this week, at a meeting in Town Hall on Monday, to defend their position once and for all.

“This board has made a decision that we will not entertain a land swap,” Trustee Jon Semlear, the board president, said sternly on Monday. “To a man, there has been no support for this.”

The four other board members echoed his statement, explaining that they were sympathetic to the cemetery’s problems and would be willing to help, but stressed that exchanging the properties was not an option.

Cemetery board members have engaged in a public campaign in recent months, including purchasing a series of advertisements in The Southampton Press, criticizing the Trustees for the rejection in hopes of convincing them to reverse their decision.

The two main properties in question each measure around 2 acres and are located near the Westhampton graveyard. The main difference between the two lots is that the Trustees’ land runs along the northern border of the existing cemetery and overlooks Beaver Lake, while the cemetery group’s property is landlocked, located north of Lakeside Lane and does not share a border with the existing graveyard.

If the land swap is rejected, cemetery officials had planned on utilizing their landlocked property for expansion. But in order to access their land, cemetery officials would need permission from the Trustees to install an access road on land that is owned by them. Restrictions on that property, Trustees said, prevent the clearing of trees for the installation of a road.

On Monday, Mr. Semlear said the Trustees had never told cemetery association members that they could expect to make a swap if they purchased the landlocked parcel. He added that if any former Trustees had led the cemetery to believe a swap could be made that the board is not bound to that unwritten agreement.

“I’m at a loss as to why the cemetery board would have gone ahead and bought that property without some kind of written assurance,” Mr. Semlear said. “Legally, our hands are tied, and environmentally, we are anxious to protect that lake. I don’t understand how ... the public has been led to believe that I made some kind of deal that I am going back on.”

Westhampton Cemetery Association President Tom Benjamin said he felt his group had been led to believe that there was a reason for them to purchase the landlocked property, which it paid $190,000 for in 2007.

“In 2006, when I came to a meeting here, you said: ‘You have nothing to swap. When you get something to swap, meaning this piece of property, come back to us,’” Mr. Benjamin told board members.

Trustee Eric Shultz said he would have expected the cemetery to research the legal details of such an agreement before its representatives bought a piece of land.

But cemetery association member Gordon Werner, who owns a funeral home in Westhampton Beach, put the blame for the misunderstanding squarely on the Trustees.

“If at any time during the last 16 months, before we closed on this piece of property, you had told us that this was going to be a problem, none of this would have been necessary,” he quipped.

Cemetery officials have said that expanding onto the Trustee-owned property would have created 1,500 new burial plots, or 9,000 ash internment sites, extending the life of the graveyard by about 40 years.

The Trustees were given the title to its 2-acre property in 1990 during the approval process for a neighboring subdivision. The Southampton Town Planning Board also placed several conservation easements on the property, blocking any future clearing of vegetation or development of any kind.

Trustees attorney Kathryn Garvin said that in order for board members to free themselves of the easements and swap the parcel for another, they would have to seek approval from the New York State Legislature, as well as a four-vote majority of the Southampton Town Board. They would then have to put the measure up for a public referendum in Southampton Town.

Attorney Tom DeMayo, representing the cemetery’s board, said he thought the Trustees could navigate the legal route to complete the suggested land swap—if there was a desire to do so.

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Hang tough, Trustees!
By barnbabe (64), westhampton beach on Aug 5, 09 3:29 PM
1 member liked this comment
It's really too bad, but the trustee's did the right thing.
By EastEnd68 (888), Westhampton on Aug 5, 09 6:04 PM
1 member liked this comment
Yes, on the East End it used to be that a person's word was as good as gold or his signature. That, however, is apparently not how the Southampton Town Trustees see it. And not only that, but 4 of the 5 current sitting Trustees were there as witnesses and did nothing and said nothing. It really takes total complicity and collusion for an intrigue to work right and that's really hard to achieve. Maybe it's just plain ignorance. Whatever the case congratulations to the Trustees for significantly lowering ...more
By barberosa (39), Watermill on Aug 5, 09 7:11 PM
I would like to thank the Trustees for standing their ground w the cemetrey issue. That's what true elected official should do look out for the people...............Yes it is the right thing..........
By mwarn (1), HAMPTON BAYS on Aug 10, 09 8:44 AM
Too bad their concern for the pristine nature of the property occurred about 20 years too late. Then the head waters of Cooks Pond would truly have been protected. Instead, they sold out to developers of condos and homes that adjoin the lake - you know people who spray pesticides, have active cesspools and needed a bridge right over the headwaters making it subject to all sorts of other chemical issues. Way to go guys, you protected that one little parcel.
By Native Westhamptonite (14), Westhampton on Aug 11, 09 3:12 PM