The Southampton Town Trustees have rejected a land swap involving the Westhampton Cemetery Association, ending two years of negotiations that, if approved, would have allowed the association to expand its graveyard that is nearly filled to capacity.
On January 28, the Town Trustees dismissed the association’s suggestion that the two parties exchange a pair of 2-acre properties near the Westhampton Cemetery—one that is owned by the association and another by the Trustees. Cemetery officials stated that the trade was necessary to expand the graveyard, which has fewer than 50 burial plots remaining.
Specifically, Westhampton Cemetery Association officials had hoped to trade their land, which they had purchased about two years ago for $190,000 and is located off Station Road, with a similar-sized parcel that the Town Trustees own and abuts the cemetery’s northern boundary.
Cemetery officials noted that the transfer would have created 1,500 new burial plots, or 9,000 ash internment sites, immediately north of the cemetery grounds. They estimated that the land swap would have extended the life of the graveyard by as much as 40 years, without requiring the exchange of money.
“Hopefully, we’ll get enough community support to make the Trustees change their mind,” said Gordon Werner, a member of the Westhampton Cemetery Association’s Board of Directors and the director of Follett and Werner Funeral Home in Westhampton Beach. “We would be willing to abide to any restrictions [on the property], but they didn’t give us any,” he added. “They just shut the door.”
Noting that he opposed the transfer since it was first suggested two years ago, Trustee Eric Shultz explained this week that the town-owned property has too much environmental value to be compromised by the digging of graves. The town property features a “mature hardwood forest” and borders Beaver Lake, which is used by kayakers, Mr. Shultz said.
“They need a dedicated, larger spot somewhere in town that could be a full-scale cemetery,” Mr. Shultz said, noting that the root systems of trees would be disturbed by grave-digging. “This is one of most pristine wetlands areas that we have in the town.”
Attorney Tom DeMayo, who serves as legal counsel for the Westhampton Cemetery Association, dismissed the concerns about the environment.
“That’s ludicrous,” Mr. DeMayo said. “I don’t agree that this would disturb the environment. There’s a cemetery there now.
“We’re not going to bury people close to the water,” he continued.
A 50-foot-wide natural buffer now separates the cemetery from Beaver Lake, though Mr. Shultz explained that the graveyard predates several restrictions designed to protect the waterway from pollution. Trustee President Jon Semlear stressed this week that his board is still willing to assist the association in finding another suitable property on which the graveyard can be expanded.
But Mr. DeMayo noted that if a resolution is not reached soon, ownership of the Westhampton Cemetery, a section of which faces Montauk Highway, would revert to Southampton Town. Ryan Horn, a spokesman for the town, confirmed that ownership of the cemetery would be transferred the to town once all of the burial plots are filled.
Mr. Werner stated that the association’s 2-acre lot, which is landlocked, is not an ideal property on which to expand the graveyard. Either the Town Trustees, or other property owners whose land borders the lot, would have to grant an easement to the association so it can access the property. Mr. Shultz noted that the association’s property is environmentally sensitive as well, suggesting that officials will have a tough time obtaining the easement.
Cemetery officials also noted that they would have to navigate a lengthy application process with New York State in order to make their parcel an official part of the existing cemetery.
There are other properties available to the association, including part of a large swath of land located north of Montauk Highway, where the old Bailey’s Motel stands, as well as a 2-acre parcel that is located south of both Montauk Highway and the cemetery, according to Mr. DeMayo.
Mary Wilson, the Community Preservation Fund manager for Southampton Town, said the motel property totals 32 acres. The town is currently in negotiations to buy that land and Ms. Wilson said she could not disclose its value.
Ms. Wilson emphasized that the CPF cannot be tapped to purchase land for a cemetery. She explained that if the town closes on the motel property, a section would have to be sold to either the town or the Westhampton Cemetery Association. “They would have to work with the Town Board if they wanted to do that,” Ms. Wilson added.
Another 2-acre parcel that runs between Mill Road and Montauk Highway, just north of the 7-Eleven on Mill Road, could also be used to expand the cemetery, according to Mr. DeMayo.
Though they have other options, cemetery officials are hopeful that the Town Trustees will reexamine the original proposal and “change their mind,” Mr. DeMayo said. “They should have went ahead and explored the application more carefully,” he added.
The Town Trustees held a special meeting in Westhampton Beach Village Hall last July to discuss the proposed land swap. Many homeowners from Lakeside Lane, a subdivision located just north of the cemetery, were in attendance to voice their opposition to the suggestion. They explained that when they purchased their homes, the town-owned land was supposed to remain as a passive park.
In fact, Mr. Shultz explained that the land was designated as open space when the Lakeside Lane subdivision was constructed in the mid-1980s. Mr. Shultz served on the Southampton Town Planning Board when that application was approved. “The land was gotten as a park and as open space in the subdivision process,” Mr. Shultz said.
Mr. DeMayo and others contend that the Town Trustees are simply caving to the demands of homeowners who do not want to see the cemetery expanded. “We think that the Trustees bowed to the neighboring homes, and it leaves a bad taste in the association’s mouth,” he said.
Meredith Medina-Murray of Westhampton, who said she favored the land swap during the July meeting and owns a burial plot in the Westhampton Cemetery, described the decision of the Town Trustees as “shameful.”
“The cemetery came first,” Ms. Medina-Murray said. “The Lakeside people are 200 years late. Where are we going to bury people, Jamaica, Queens?”