‘There Is a Hint of Hypocrisy’: P&Z Rejects ‘Cemetery’ Claims, Signaling Cleared Final Hurdle for Merritt Village

Planning officials on Tuesday night voiced support for proposed changes to the town’s approval for the Merritt Village, signaling the clearing of a final hurdle for the 110-unit condo-and-apartment complex.

Because archeological excavations have been undertaken since the Planning & Zoning Commission’s November approval—creating a need to reword parts of it—the group at its regular meeting stopped short of formally voting on an application filed on behalf of property owner M2 Partners.

Yet P&Z spoke favorably of updating conditions regarding a burial ground on the Maple Street site that M2 had found objectionable because, if upheld, they would have required the property owner to seek approval for an amended site plan.

Saying they’re concerned about preserving local history, some in town have called for P&Z to designate as “cemetery” ground areas of the Maple Street property where, archeological experts have said, people who had been buried there were deliberately dug up and moved to more desirable resting places, such as Lakeview Cemetery. The remaining disinterred grave shafts are scattered throughout a substantial parcel at Merritt Apartments.

Yet P&Z commissioners offered only praise for M2 managing principal Arnold Karp and his identification of a burial ground on the property and subsequent, transparent, self-funded archeological study of it.

Further, commissioner Dick Ward said, the comment from some M2 opponents that “once a cemetery, always a cemetery” is “a bit of a difficult premise to accept.”

While defining and protecting an area where buried bodies continue to lay in rest “is appropriate,” Ward said, “I would also point out that there is a hint of hypocrisy in this, because for the last 100 years nobody seems to have really cared about this entire cemetery.”

“There has been some pavement put on a part it and a fence put in across the middle of it,” he said at the meeting, held in Town Hall. “It hasn’t been maintained, so I find that this sudden great concern is a little thin.”

Represented by attorney Steve Finn of Stamford-based Wofsey Rosen Kweskin & Kuriansky LLP, M2 Partners after six hearings—several of them well attended, and with public comments from dozens of advocates as well as detractors—won approval of the Merritt Village project, with 60-plus conditions. During the months that the project was before P&Z, the applicant reduced the number of units and height of several buildings, among other changes.

M2 filed an administrative appeal to some of the conditions, and lingering questions about the presence of bodies in the Maple Street Burial Ground held up the developer as three intact remains turned up in December, as did fragments from bodies that experts said resulted from shoddy work in disinterring them. Those discoveries led to a more comprehensive archeological study of the site.

The project now appears poised to move forward.

M2 officials have said they face extensive abatement of asbestos and lead paint prior to the physical demolition of Merritt Apartments. The two-year project, if it starts in earnest this spring, should be finished by the spring of 2019, officials have said.

During the meeting, Town Planner Steve Palmer reviewed maps of the burial ground and state laws regarding cemetery preservation. P&Z, he said, was required to determine whether the parcels “contain historic resources” and if they do, what steps must be made to protect them and “enhance the character and environment of the area.”

“Ultimately, what you are looking at is, you are really defining whether or not this subject area is unique or historic in its present state,” Palmer said.

“You are not really looking at eliminating a potentially historic area here. What you are really doing is you are defining it as it’s been used over time—the cemetery, the burial plots. A lot has changed. This new look at this, which really would not have happened without the application, gives the commission and the town new insight as to what is actually there and what is not. So I think this is a really good effort on the applicant’s part for providing this information to the town, and it is now your responsibility to determine if these are unique and historic and to what degree this area deserves more protection than the applicant has already agreed to provide.”

Commissioner John Kriz said that if people’s “earthly remains have been moved elsewhere by their loved ones” then the area now amounts to “an abandoned area.”

“I think it is appropriate that the Law interments are left there,” Kriz said, referring to the remains of a prominent New Canaan man who died 182 years ago, David Law, and his two sons. “Call me old school but ‘final resting place’ should mean something.”

Fellow commissioners echoed his sentiments.

Laszlo Papp said that “at the end of the day, we have to thank Arnold” for stepping up to preserve “not only a neglected but abused and desecrated cemetery.”

“It was curious that nobody spoke about the preservation of this cemetery on the abandoned side,” Papp said.

Only M2 Partners “indicated that they would fence it and mark and as much as on their side as can be done to conserve the existing cemetery in a proper way, so I am in favor of accepting their recommendations,” he added.

P&Z also voiced support for amending other conditions to which M2 had raised concerns, one regarding the number of parking spaces required—the result of a simple mathematical miscalculation, Chairman John Goodwin said—and details surrounding a fence to be erected during construction.

2 thoughts on “‘There Is a Hint of Hypocrisy’: P&Z Rejects ‘Cemetery’ Claims, Signaling Cleared Final Hurdle for Merritt Village

  1. I was present at the meeting and was offended by the “hypocrisy” comment, as were others I spoke with after the decision. Who was to know beforehand that there was an abandoned and abused cemetery on those grounds? That people were in fact showing their concern after the discovery belies the accusation of “hypocrisy” by Dick Ward and the comment by Laszlo Papp that it was “curious” that no one had spoken up about the cemetery beforehand.
    The P&Z Commission praised Arnold Karp for calling attention to the cemetery and funding the archeological investigation. Let’s be real, though: Mr. Karp was probably not keen to be accused of grave robbery after the fact. Furthermore, since he is the one building the monstrous M2 project, it follows naturally that he is the one who should have to pay for such a study!
    Is there no way the people of New Canaan can halt this project and get it knocked back down to a suitable size? I do not object to there being residences built on this site, if the cemetery is not disturbed. I just want the project to be in keeping with zoning laws. I cannot fathom why P&Z approved its expansion to so many floors and so many apartments. It not only will be an eyesore, but it will change the character of our town forever for the worse. The traffic alone is going to be catastrophic.
    When I last criticized his project, Mr. Karp tracked me down on Facebook and ranted at me, much the way Donald Trump does via Twitter to anyone who criticizes him. He suggested that I’d prefer it if New Canaan stayed the way it was in the 1970s. While I’m sure a lot of people would answer “yes” to this idea, that is not the point. New developments and facilities do not signify progress if they spoil the town’s physical beauty or our smooth passage through it.

    • Debbie, thank you for submitting your comment and for using your real and full name. I approved it because, though your remarks are pointed, they are not personal—and I appreciate that, too. A few observations: First, my own take on Dick Ward’s comment regarding ‘hypocrisy’ was that some of those who took up the cemetery cause did so as a pretext for fighting against the overall Merritt Village project. Your own call to “halt this project” risks that type of interpretation—or, rather, misinterpretation. Mr. Ward also qualified his remark—”a hint of hypocrisy” (my emphasis)—and my take on that qualification was that some of those who argued in favor of a larger protected cemetery parcel (i.e, including disinterred graves) did so out of genuine concern for historic preservation. Second, though many people had been aware of the gravestones still scattered about this site, Arnold Karp and M2 Partners put resources behind the genealogical study of those buried there as part of their original application—that is, before P&Z compelled them to do anything. Third, you say that you would support the Merritt Village development so long as the cemetery was left undisturbed. Following third-party expert testimony that P&Z itself required on Mr. Karp’s dime, the commission decided first to take up a question that the group deemed essential to making sure exactly that was done—namely: Just which part of this parcel represents a cemetery and historic site that merits protection? The conclusion—that areas where bodies purposely had been removed and re-buried elsewhere do not in fact remain “cemetery” ground—may not be the same conclusion you and others reached. However, it was reached after vigorous study and discussion. Finally, Laszlo Papp referred to what was revealed by means of ground-penetrating radar to be a more substantive and “active” burial ground, just east of the M2 parcel/property line. That area also contains gravestones that are broken and fallen over, and has been paved over by asphalt as part of a parking area behind a housing unit that fronts South Avenue. If those who have spoken out against M2 Partners on the basis of the cemetery did so in earnest, then certainly P&Z’s meeting on Tuesday night will not prevent that group from pursuing its preservation goal. I would ask that you and others among the non-hypocritical please keep me apprised of your progress and I will be happy to share your work with the wider community. Thank you again.

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