Hart Island transfer plan runs into some opposition

The Parks Department expressed skepticism about transferring it jurisdiction of Hart Island.
Community News Group / Patrick Rocchio

It appears that the agency asked to assume responsibility for the burial grounds of the city’s indigent is as destitute as those buried there .

Local community leaders testified at a City Council committee hearing on Wednesday, January 20 mostly in favor of legislation that would transfer the 100-acre island, home to the city’s ‘Potter’s Field,’ from the Department of Correction to the Parks Department.

But testimony and a statement from the Parks Department indicates that the agency does not have the funds to properly steward the land, which has been an active burial site for more than a century.

“Parks supports the efforts made by the New York City Department of Correction in keeping Hart Island in the best possible condition for friends and families of the deceased who visit to pay their respects,” said Matt Drury, of the Parks Department, adding “We believe that the operation of a public cemetery falls well outside of our agency’s expertise and available resources.”

According to a source, Parks already works with DOC to provide assistance on horticultural management issues for the island.

The source also stated that the agency believes they can continue to support DOC efforts to make the island more accessible to family members of those interned there without a jurisdiction transfer.

The City Island Civic Association has been advocating for the transfer of the island, in the Long Island Sound from the community, because the city has developed plans for its use over four decades that proved unpopular in the community, said John Doyle, CICA board member.

He said that he believes that the resistance by the Parks Department is motivated by financial concerns, because if the transfer legislation becomes law, there may or may not be an accompanying increase in funding for the new park.

Doyle said that the CICA has lined up support from the borough’s NYC Council delegation.

The CICA is not looking for the area to become a public park in the traditional sense, but rather is calling for a dignified public burial site , he said.

Barbara Dolensek, CICA vice president, testified before the committees about the historical significance of the Hart Island.

Dolensek said that when she first moved to the City Island in the 1970s, Hart Island was open to the public and people could go there to admire and take pictures of historic buildings dating back to the 1880s, a Civil War monument and a chapel.

By contrast, today people are threatened with arrest when they try to visit Hart Island without DOC approval, and visitors who do get permission to visit are not allowed to take photographs.

Councilman James Vacca, who attended the joint Parks and Recreation and Fire and Criminal Justice committees’ hearing, was disappointed that the agencies and mayoral administration did not come forward with a plan other than outright opposition to the legislation, said Michael Rivadeneyra, his chief of staff.

“This was the first hearing that the (transfer) legislation received, so it really started the conversation as to which would be the best agency to manage the property,” said Rivadeneyra,

Rivadeneyra said that the city has a responsibility to ensure access for families and friends of people who are buried there, and that the dialogue about which agency should oversee Hart Island will continue.

The legislation has yet to be voted on, but the hearing is a first step towards a later vote, sources said.

Reach Reporter Patrick Rocchio at (718) 260–4597. E-mail him at procchio@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @patrickfrocchio.

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