FORT ANN — With emotions running high, people with plots in Brown’s Cemetery in West Fort Ann turned out in force for Monday’s Town Board meeting and demanded to know why the town had not responded to their concerns.
The criticisms were leveled even after Supervisor Richard Moore announced Moose Hillock Campground owner Ed Paradis had moved a fence that was blocking the back road of the cemetery and also said the Town Board will consider taking over the cemetery proper at its meeting next month.
“Who let this happen?” asked a tearful Bonnie Graves, whose family owns plots in the cemetery and was among more than 50 people at the meeting. “There is no way my parents can be buried. If it were your parents, you’d understand. I want answers. It’s very upsetting.”
Joan Degner said her family had a funeral at the cemetery late last month, and the changes caused major issues.
“We had elderly people who had to walk in from the road, and to turn around, the vault truck had to back over my sister’s grave,” she said.
William Nikas, an attorney from Hudson Falls, is representing for free anyone with family in the cemetery and said he will file a lawsuit if necessary.
Paradis’ attorney, Mark Rehm, also spoke at the meeting.
“Mr. Paradis wants to co-exist together. He is a man of his word, and he will work with you,” Rehm said. “I think we can bring it together and come up with a resolution that will satisfy both sides.”
Moore asked Nikas and Rehm to meet with him, Paradis and Jeffrey Meyer, the town’s attorney.
Moore said it would be better to have a meeting before any lawsuits were filed. All sides agreed to a meeting.
On Tuesday, Nikas said that following Monday’s meeting, he met with more than 25 people who have plots or family in the cemetery. He also noted that an online and written petition had more than 1,000 signatures.
“My representation will cover anyone who chooses to support the cause, but of course anyone is free to retain their own attorney,” Nikas said. “Due to my commitment and belief in my Fort Ann neighbors, I have agreed to offer my legal services on a pro bono basis until a final resolution can be reached.”
While the fence and a berm in front of it were put up this fall as part of a house construction project on land Paradis owned, the landowner has said he has been negotiating to give land back to the town or whatever entity owned the cemetery but has not been able to.
Christine Milligan, commander of the Whitehall American Legion, said her group would take part in any lawsuit and added she feels it is time the issue was settled.
“This has been going on and on for four years now,” she said. “We have been fighting this for a long time. The town has failed us on this. We have tried, and the town is not listening to us.”
Milligan said there are about 1,500 graves in the cemetery and about 200 of them belong to veterans.
Paradis has said he has been trying to deed over the parts of the cemetery he owns — the access road and a turnaround — for four years.
Virginia Parrott, the longtime town historian, said she thinks residents would be willing to support the cemetery maintenance.
“I do not see how anyone in this country could desecrate a cemetery,” she said. “I do not think anyone would have a problem paying a couple dollars more a year to take care of it.”
For the second meeting in a row, Leroy Harrison told board members they should take, by eminent domain, the entrance road and a 50-foot buffer from the edge of Paradis’ property.
Moore said the town has much more information on the cemetery than it did a month ago.
“We finally found the wills for Clara West and her son, Gerald,” Moore said of the family that owned the property as a farm prior to the campground being developed. “There is nothing about the cemetery in there.”
Moore said the town also has more information on the Browns’ family tree and is continuing to research it.
He also asked Meyer to have information ready for the Jan. 9 board meeting on the town taking ownership of the cemetery.
“While we are in the interim of determining whether this is actually an abandoned public cemetery, I think in the near future, we need to consider taking over the cemetery,” Moore said. “It has been a long time since anyone has been named as being a caretaker.”
Moore noted that members of various families have been taking care of parts of the cemetery.
“We know that Clara West sold plots and Gerald West sold plots, but there is no record or journal,” he added.
Board member Dennis Fletcher, who is employed by the town to mow its other cemeteries during the summer, said the town would face higher costs if it took over the cemetery.
“That’s a big cemetery. It’s going to take a lot of work,” he said. “We would need more hours.”