FORT ANN — The contentious dispute over access to parts of an abandoned cemetery in West Fort Ann has moved to a new venue — state Supreme Court in Washington County.
Attorney William Nikas, acting on a pro bono basis, has filed suit against Moose Hillock Campground LLC on behalf of 34 people who either have relatives buried in Brown’s Cemetery or own plots there. He is also representing the Fort Ann American Legion, and Town Attorney Jeffrey Meyer is involved in the suit, representing the town, which recently declared the cemetery abandoned, which means it has taken control of it.
In a strongly worded, 20-page filing, Nikas focuses on seeking restoration of the turnaround and parking area at the cemetery, which were blocked by work done by campground owner Ed Paradis and are still not as accessible as they once were.
The suit also seeks unspecified financial damages from Moose Hillock to those who own plots or have family members buried in the cemetery and includes the possibility of $45,000 or more in fines to the town for violations of the Planning Board’s approval of the site. The fines accrue monthly at a rate of up to $500, and Nikas cites three separate issues, each for 30 months.
The filing also seeks to instruct governmental agencies to force Paradis to make changes at the cemetery to meet prior agreements, as well as pay the plaintiffs’ legal costs.
“The most important aspect of the suit is getting the turnaround and the parking restored,” Nikas said.
The situation had been quietly simmering for more than four years, beginning when Paradis bought the land for the campground more than four years ago. It intensified last year when Paradis erected a fence and an earthern berm on the back road of the cemetery, which he said he owned according to the deed, but which had been used for access to the graves and to a turnaround. He has since moved the fence back and removed the berm, but plot owners contend that is not enough.
The land had long been farmland. It was owned by Hiram Brown, then sold to the West family. Clara West sold the land to Richland Properties and eventually it was purchased by Paradis.
Both the Browns and Wests sold cemetery plots, and some of the burials there go back several hundred years, including Revolutionary War veterans. But there are no complete records of plot sales, and some people do not have deeds to the plots. There have also been some questions about the boundaries of the cemetery.
The 182-acre campground has private sites for tent and RV camping and also has cabin suites.
Attorney: No comment
Paradis had said last week he would like to comment on the issues, but his attorney, Mark Rehm, who received the filing Thursday, said it was too early to make any observations on the suit.
“I am unable to give an informed comment at this time, as we just received the summons and complaint from Attorney Nikas and must review the allegations carefully and respond to these allegations in the normal course of litigation,” he said in an email response. “It is unfortunate that this matter has resulted in litigation, but that is where we are at this time. As such, we must respect and trust in the judicial process.”
In the suit, Nikas notes the deed to the property specifically excludes the cemetery property, which has been used as a burial ground since the 1700s and is delineated on a survey map. The suit referenced the town Planning Board and Adirondack Park Agency approval of the development plan, which specifically mentions the cemetery parking area and fence location. It also notes that a tree buffer must be maintained and says the defendant has violated all of these stipulations, including cutting the trees. The suit also said the American Legion is impacted, because it has the responsibility to conduct military funerals, and the defendant has “violated, impaired and disturbed the sacred rights of veterans buried and to be buried.”
As far as individual plaintiffs go, the suit said they have the right to have the cemetery “perpetually dedicated as sacred ground.”
In the request for relief, the suit requests the trees be replanted, the fence be located at the original line, according to the Planning Board decision and the parking area and turnaround be reconstructed to conform to the APA decision.