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Southampton officials upset about fence installed on grounds of historic cemetery

Officials say a 10-foot high fence that Mirek

Officials say a 10-foot high fence that Mirek Denis and Anne Chwat put up along their Southampton property desecrated the abutting 17th century cemetery. The fence was taken down on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015. Photo Credit: Sundy Schermeyer

The Southampton Town Burying Ground Committee called an emergency meeting Monday to discuss a 10-foot-tall fence that officials said desecrated a historic 17th century cemetery, but no resolution was reached.

Southampton Town Clerk Sundy Schermeyer said the Old Southampton Burying Ground on Little Plains Road is home to the remains of some of the town's first settlers. The cemetery dates to 1648.

In the past few days, officials learned that Mirek Denis and Anne Chwat, whose home at 40 James St. abuts the burial ground, had put up the fencing without permission on the town-owned side of the property line. It was removed on Sunday.

The committee met for about an hour at Town Hall. Schermeyer said attorneys for the town and the homeowners discussed what the next steps will be, but no decision was made. Schermeyer said committee members and others at the meeting felt it necessary to make the public more aware of the importance of the cemetery to avoid future incidents.

"Thousands of people are buried there -- African-American slaves and Shinnecock [Indians] are buried there," said Tom Edmonds, executive director of the Southampton Historical Museums and Research Center, who was at the meeting. "This is a terrible desecration."

Schermeyer suggested that perhaps a kiosk with an information pamphlet should be placed at the entrance to the cemetery, which is open to the public.

"Clearly we have major concerns about preserving and protecting the town's oldest cemetery, and what may be one of the oldest cemeteries in the state of New York," Schermeyer said in a telephone interview Monday.

Schermeyer said town officials filed a police report after learning about the 200-foot-long fence and that by Sunday those portions that were on the burial ground property had been taken down. She said she did not know who removed it but said town workers put up "no trespassing" signs in the area afterward.

On Thursday, a cease-and-desist letter was issued to Denis and Chwat, warning that entering town property again would constitute trespassing. They could face misdemeanor charges of desecrating a historic site, according to Schermeyer.

Denis and Chwat could not be reached for comment Monday.

Schermeyer said the cemetery contains about 50 headstones.

"But not everyone could afford a headstone that was able to survive centuries, so we're not sure where some people are buried," she said. "Just because you don't see a stone it doesn't mean there's not someone interred in that area.

"We hope that, while this is a terrible way to increase awareness of our historic cemeteries, people will see they should be careful when bordering these cemeteries," Schermeyer said, adding that there are 10 historic cemeteries in town.

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