NYCLU lawsuit on Hart Island settled, City Island Civic Association continues to look for transfer to Parks

The Department of Corrections has agreed to provide greater access to gravesites on Hart Island as settlement of a lawsuit with the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The settlement will provide access to burial sites for families, and establish one weekend day a month when visitors will be able to use a city ferry from City Island to visit the remote, secluded, approximately 100-acre island that is the city’s ‘potter’s field.’

Meanwhile, members of the City Island Civic Association continue to advocate for the transfer of Hart Island from the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections to the Parks Department to prevent the city from using the island for detrimental purposes.

John Doyle, CICA corresponding secretary, said that transferring jurisdiction to the Parks Department hurts no one.

The association views a bill currently pending before the City Council which would facilitate the transfer as a step towards preventing projects on Hart Island like jails, homeless shelters and incinerators, he said.

“This is an opportunity for residents of the community to act strategically to prevent the possibility of future development,” said Doyle. “I strongly urge anyone who has questions to contact the civic association, because it would be very much in our interest to seize this moment.”

The CICA has supported the transfer of the island to the Parks Department by a vote of 44 to 2 of its membership, and the matter has been discussed at eight of the organization’s meetings, most recently in June, said Doyle.

Tom Smith, CICA treasurer, said that the surest way to maintain the island in its current form is to place its land under Parks. In order to alienate parkland, approval is needed from the state legislature, he explained.

“All we need to do is change the jurisdiction for conservation purposes,” he said, adding “The reality is that the city could try to sell it.”

Smith said that the association was trying to prevent the island from being sold off and developed, and he cited North Brother Island in the East River as an example of land that falls under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department, but is not a park.

Community Board 10 has voted to support the concept of seeing the island transferred to Parks.

Months ago, Councilman James Vacca expressed support for the legislation, saying it would protect the island in perpetuity.

The legal agreement comes after the NYCLU filed a class-action suit against the city in December challenging city policy that stringently limited visitors to the island, where one million New Yorkers have been buried since the 1860s.

The settlement also will see the DOC escort visitors to the island to the burial sites of their loved ones, as well as see the agency maintain an online and telephone system where families can schedule a visit to the island and add grave marking numbers to an online database of burial locations.

In a statement, DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte said the agency would comply with the terms.

“The parties to this settlement share a common goal: we want to enable access to the cemetery on Hart Island in a compassionate and safe manner,” said Ponte. “We look forward to implementing this historic settlement, and pledge to work closely with the NYCLU in order to make the compassionate access it envisions a reality.”

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

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