By Stephen J. Kotz
Temple Adas Israel’s effort to expand its Chevra Kodetia Cemetery on Route 114 just south of Sag Harbor received a sympathetic hearing when it was unveiled before the East Hampton Town Planning Board on April 2, but board members nonetheless pointed out that a number of significant hurdles need to be overcome before it can be approved.
The key barrier to the congregation obtaining site-plan approval for the expansion is that the 1-acre property proposed for it, which the congregation purchased more than two years ago, is in a water recharge district, where clearing restrictions are stricter than for similar sized lots elsewhere to help protect the groundwater from pollution.
The situation is further complicated, said Miles Anderson, the Sag Harbor attorney representing the synagogue, this week because town law requires that burials must be done in sealed caskets, “which is against the Jewish faith,” if a cemetery is in a water recharge area.
Yet another twist to the application is that Suffolk County tax maps erroneously show the original Chevra Kodetia Cemetery as part of a larger, 6.3-acre parcel, which includes 5.3 acres owned by the Jewish Cemetery Association. In fact, the properties were legally split in 1891, Mr. Anderson told the planning board, with Temple Adas Israel owning only a 1-acre portion of the larger parcel.
In their initial review of the site-plan application, town planners erroneously thought the two cemeteries shared a single parcel. As a result, they overestimated the amount of land that could be cleared.
“Our current cemetery is practically filled. We have been looking for this opportunity for a long time,” Howard Chwatsky, a synagogue trustee and chairman of its cemetery committee, told the planning board. “We are here out of need. As they say, people are dying to get in.”
Mr. Chwatsky told the board that the two cemeteries were split in the 19th century because two groups of Jews, some from Hungary and some from Russia, did not get along and quipped that they were still fighting today.
This week, Rabbi Leon Morris of Temple Adas Israel took pains to stress that there was no animosity between the groups, “I do a lot of funerals in both cemeteries,” he said, adding that the different cemeteries were the result of different waves of Jewish immigration. “It’s akin to the differences between a Roman Catholic Church that is Irish and one that is Italian,” he said.
Of more pressing concern is whether the town will even allow the cemetery to expand because of limits it imposes on cemeteries in water recharge districts that require “caskets to be encased in watertight liners to restrict the entry of body decomposition and embalming chemicals into ground or surface water.”
Rabbi Morris suggested that when the town adopted those restrictions “it didn’t have in mind Jewish burial practice” in which bodies are not embalmed and buried in simple pine coffins. “Maybe the restrictions were based on the assumptions bodies would be embalmed and that a lot of toxic glues would be used in coffins,” he said.
A key now, he said, was determining how “arbitrary the lines are in demarking an area next to a historic cemetery” as a water recharge district. “We only purchased that land so we could increase the size of our cemetery,” he said.
Mr. Anderson told the planning board the synagogue would be happy to go before the town Zoning Board of Appeals. “We just need direction so we can get off square one,” he said.
“I see no reason why they can’t grant a variance,” he said on Tuesday. “The question is will they?”
Mr. Anderson added this week that he expects to meet with the town’s building inspector and planners in the coming weeks to discuss the application and what needs to be done to get it moving. “It is going to result in a catalog of issues we have to address,” he said of that meeting.
Board members said they wanted to work with the synagogue, but they had questions about a plan to provide access to the expanded burial ground via Six Pole Highway. That road now serves a single house and would have to be improved to provide access. Synagogue representatives said they did not envision heavy use. Rather, they said the access would be used during the development of the site, to allow backhoes to enter the property to dig graves, and allow hearses to get closer to gravesites.
Eric Schantz, the town planner assigned to the application, stated in an email on Tuesday that the planning board has the authority to issue a special exception permit that would allow additional clearing, provided the property meets a minimum size, but he added that he did not believe the synagogue’s property would meet that threshold and would likely require a variance from the ZBA.
Mr. Anderson said it was anyone’s guess why the county tax maps had never differentiated between the two, separately owned, cemeteries. “They were classified as one cemetery. Because nobody was paying taxes on it — and nobody was required to pay — it was overlooked,” he said.