Council landmarks old burial ground

Council landmarks old burial ground
By Karen Frantz

The City Council voted to designate Brinckerhoff Cemetery, the burial site of several of Queens’ first settlers, as a landmark Monday despite an attempt by the cemetery’s owner to claim hardship and thus prevent the designation.

“With the landmarking of the Brinckerhoff cemetery, an irreplaceable part of Queens’ history will be preserved in perpetuity,” said City Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows), whose district includes the burial site. “After more than a decade-long legal struggle, this hallowed ground, which was used as a cemetery for more than 200 years, is preserved.”

The vote to give Brinckerhoff Cemetery landmark status is the latest in a string of victories for a number of civic associations and historical societies that have been fighting to protect the burial ground from development, starting with the decision of the city Landmarks Preservation Commission to landmark the site earlier this year.

“It’s a marvelous victory for all of us,” said Ashook Ramsaran, a board member of the Fresh Meadows Homeowners Civic Association, which has been on the forefront of fighting for the landmark designation, about an earlier unanimous vote by the City Council Committee on Land Use to landmark Brinckerhoff. That vote paved the way for full Council approval.

Ramsaran said Le Dan Cai, of Linda’s Cai Trading Inc., the current owner of the cemetery, had testified in front of Land Use’s Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses Dec. 4 that a landmark designation would pose a hardship for her because she did not know when she bought the property that it was a cemetery.

A landmark designation protects the land from development and previous owners of Brinckerhoff had said they wanted to build there.

Ramsaran said the claim contradicted Cai’s statement in the same testimony that she first learned the land was a cemetery when she reviewed the title report prior to closing on the property.

Cai could not be reached for comment.

Ramsaran said a number of Council members challenged Cai’s claim and spoke out strongly in favor of landmarking Brinckerhoff. He said Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) in particular made an impassioned speech to the subcommittee in support of landmarking the cemetery.

“He discounted all the claims of the owner,” Ramsaran said, saying Halloran spoke eloquently and convincingly on the issue. “He championed it for us.”

Other Council members also spoke out against the claim Cai did not know the land was a burial plot before she purchased it. State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) and Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) both wrote letters to Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) challenging Cai’s assertion.

Vallone, a former real estate attorney, said in his letter he thought the notion the owner of the property was unaware of the history of the land was preposterous.

“If her title company did not make her aware, then she would have an action against said company,” he wrote in the letter. “If her title report did in fact state the history of the property, then she was clearly aware of the risks involved. In neither case is she an innocent purchaser or is this a legal hardship.”

The subcommittee voted unanimously to landmark the cemetery Dec. 4.

The cemetery, on 182nd Street between 69th and 73rd avenues in Fresh Meadows, dates back to the colonial era. It has become overgrown over the years, with brush covering the site and the headstones having long been stolen or swallowed by the ground.

Reach reporter Karen Frantz by e-mail at kfrantz@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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