Ground may be broken for veterans’ cemetery in May

Jennifer Menard Sheldon pays tribute to her father Roger Menard at the Ulster County Veterans’ Cemetery in New Paltz on Memorial Day 2020. (Photo by Erin Quinn)

The effort to expand the veterans’ cemetery at the New Paltz Rural Cemetery continues to be haunted by complications, but county officials overseeing the project are committed to seeing it through. Dennis Doyle, who oversees such planning at the county level, brought members of the Town of New Paltz’s Planning Board up to speed on how it’s going at their December 13 meeting. Doyle also came away with one more bureaucratic step completed, the waiving of town zoning requirements and local planning board oversight. A similar decision was made by Village Planning Board members earlier in the year.

Waiving oversight in a situation in which overlapping layers of government might muck up what’s already a detailed process is done by applying that “balance of interests” test. Board members were asked in essence to weigh the benefits of subjecting county officials to a process that could well have included a referral to the Ulster County Planning Board against the ways that this potentially self-referential review could bring harm to the interests of taxpayers.

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A small section near the front of the New Paltz Rural Cemetery was set aside for the burial of veterans a number of years ago, ensuring that those who have served can receive a military funeral while having their remains interred in Ulster County. With that area nearly full, an adjacent, unused eight-acre tract of cemetery land is to be developed to provide sufficient space for the next century’s worth of deceased veterans. The land will remain on the books as part of the same cemetery, with a county easement for that section. A maintenance agreement was negotiated with board members of the nonprofit in charge of the cemetery. Some of the acreage is within the Village, where there’s no permitted zone for cemeteries at all. With members of the two planning boards agreeing to the procedure that waives zoning requirements for a project initiated at another governmental level, county officials will be able to move ahead with overseeing this expansion directly. That includes conducting the necessary environmental review and securing clearing from representatives of various state agencies. Waiving zoning will make this project simpler, but it is by no means simple.

Doyle told the board members that much of the recent focus has been the archaeological review. Most of the projects in New Paltz don’t get much of this; a letter from the officials overseeing historic preservation usually confirms that the likelihood of anything of interest cropping up is nil. That’s not what happened in this case. Doyle explained that after completing phase 1a of the review — described as a “discussion about what’s out there,” county planners were advised to move to phase 2, the digging of test pits. Something of interest was evidently found in those pits, because phase 3 — the “recovery of features,” as Doyle put it — will be next up in that investigation. It’s involved the use of ground-penetrating radar to ensure that there are no existing burial grounds. The absence of burial grounds has been confirmed, and the design of this new cemetery space has been reconfigured “to avoid historical features closer to the river.” All of this is part of the environmental review, which cannot be waived. A negative declaration of significant environmental impact is anticipated “at some point.”

Officials in other state offices have also been consulted as these plans have come together. It has to pass muster with state cemetery officials, for example. There’s also going to be ways to engage with the nearest neighbors, something the planning director said has been complicated by the pandemic-fueled rules around gathering in numbers. Some of those neighbors have in the past shown a keen interest in how large projects will affect the stately trees along Plains Road. In this case, all of the trees along the street frontage will remain. As many as five dead or dying trees farther from the road will be wrest from their present resting places. The condemned trees are close to the “boulevard” that’s planned for a “stately entrance” to the space.

Doyle was confident that all the necessary steps — both for the environmental review and to secure needed permits — would be completed in the coming weeks, saying, “We want to bid early in the new year and break ground Memorial Day,” board members were told.