Cemetery may enter age of telecoms


(Original publication: July 30, 2005)

KENT ­ Eternity can be expensive. Someone needs to cut the grass, prune the trees and mend broken headstones.

To cover such costs, those responsible for the Union Halstead Cemetery in Kent want a communications tower in the cemetery's rear corner ­ a matter in front of the town zoning board and one upsetting a few plot holders.

The day of reckoning comes but once. However, the earthly ledger always needs to balance. A monthly rent check from Cingular would do that.

"I think it's a wonderful idea," said Dolly Lancaster, president of the cemetery's board of directors and niece of two cemetery residents. "We can use it to maintain the cemetery."

The gravestones bump up from the hillside off Route 301 and provide a primer of Kent's early residents. Smalley, Knapp, Foshay, Townsend ­ names now on street signs or maps ­ were the families of founders and farmers.

The cemetery is one of the 1,900 or so of New York's 6,600 cemeteries regulated by the state's Division of Cemeteries. The others are private, family, religious or municipal facilities. The state Cemetery Board this month approved Cingular's plan for a 100-foot-tall "brown, stealth monopole" in Union Halstead.

"Cellular phone towers are allowed in cemeteries as long as they are not intrusive," said Larry Sombke, a spokesman for the state Department of State.

The state's approval doesn't supersede local regulations. The Kent zoning board this month asked Cingular for more information about the project, said Chairman Bob Rogers, including the results of a balloon test showing how the tower's height will affect the landscape. Cingular needs a variance because the area, which is mostly woods, is residentially zoned.

Like any development matter, Rogers said, Cingular also needs to notify adjacent property owners.

In this case, that includes people who own yet-to-be-used plots and heirs to those already resting. The proposal probably won't come back to the board until its September meeting, Rogers said.

Documents filed with the town show the tower and equipment sitting on a 600-square-foot site. Antennas would be placed inside the pole and a fence and shrubs would screen the facility. An April letter from Cingular's attorney said the tower would provide better service in northwestern Kent.

Cingular spokesman Marty Nee said yesterday the company was focused on integrating its network with that of AT&T Wireless Services Inc., which it bought last year. Other plans, he said, are still being evaluated.

About 800 people are buried in the cemetery, Lancaster said, and room is available for 300 more. Like other state-regulated cemeteries, the Kent one is run as a nonprofit corporation. Grave-site sales ($750 each), interment fees and investment income pay the bills.

When a burial lot is sold, 25 percent of the money is divided between two funds: 10 percent to a trust fund to preserve and maintain the cemetery and 15 percent to a current maintenance account.

The remainder can be used for current expenses or to pay down debt from forming or enlarging the cemetery. Mowing the lawn and cutting back tree branches run about $4,000 a year. The amount Cingular would pay the cemetery is still being negotiated but it's reported to be about $25,000 a year.

"We can certainly use the money in the maintenance account," said Earl Wilkie, 82, a cemetery director.

His family owns several grave sites, for him, his wife, their children and spouses.

"I'm obviously for it. But I can understand those against it," Wilkie said.

Those opposed to the idea are worried that the pole would detract from the cemetery's atmosphere and that construction would disturb the graves.

"We had no say," said Betty Behr, 73, a former president of the cemetery and descendant of many buried there.

Lancaster said no graves would be harmed ­ electrical and other lines would be buried near a stone wall on the cemetery's southern edge ­ and the telecommunications company will fix anything it damages.

The cemetery was established in 1863 and incorporated in 1868. Dozens of graves were relocated in 1873 from the valley now beneath the Boyd Corners Reservoir. In the late 1970s, the cemetery was almost abandoned when the last remaining trustee died and money was short.

The past reigns heavily in any cemetery. But Lancaster said the directors were looking ahead to guarantee a healthy cemetery. State law requires towns to maintain abandoned cemeteries.

"The purpose of a cemetery board is to make the cemetery run right and plan for the future," Lancaster said. "This is the future."


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Saturday, July 30, 2005