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Post date: November 18 2014

A.G. Schneiderman Sues Cortland County Landowner For Allegedly Flooding Cemetery, Necessitating Disinterment And Reburials

Illegal Stormwater Discharges From Construction Activities Allegedly Inundate St. Mary’s Cemetery And New York State Route 281

ALBANY – Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today announced the filing of a lawsuit against a Cortland County property owner for allegedly causing the flooding of a cemetery and State Route 281.  The Attorney General’s suit alleges that James C. Stevens, III of Cortlandville undertook excavation activities on his property that diverted stormwater onto St. Mary’s Cemetery and New York State Route 281 in violation of state environmental and public nuisance laws.  Stevens has not corrected these violations, even though cemetery flooding has allegedly desecrated grave sites, and necessitated the disinterment and reburial of several bodies. The suit was filed in the New York Supreme Court in Cortland County and the filing can be found here.

“New York’s environmental laws not only serve to protect our health and environment, they also provide safeguards against public nuisances,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “Nobody is above the law, and our office is committed to holding people accountable when their actions harm other New Yorkers.”

Attorney General Schneiderman’s suit alleges that, in undertaking clearing, grading, and other construction activities on his Ridgeway Avenue property beginning around July 2012, Stevens altered the direction of stormwater runoff.  As a result, stormwater from 120 acres of land that had previously drained into a wooded area without causing harm has been redirected through a series of conveyances and ultimately downslope onto cemetery burial plots and other nearby properties, including State Route 281.   

The complaint charges that Stevens’ activities violate several state environmental laws, including by releasing unpermitted discharge of stormwater from construction activity and failing to implement a stormwater pollution prevention plan.  The suit also charges that his illegal activities, having allegedly injured the property, health, safety or comfort of a considerable number of persons– particularly with respect to the flooding of St. Mary’s Cemetery and State Route 281 – constitute a public nuisance under state law.  

The complaint cites reports of the Catholic Cemeteries of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse, which owns St. Mary’s Cemetery, that several families have been forced to disinter and rebury bodies of their loved ones due to significant erosion caused by Stevens’ alleged illegal stormwater discharges.  The Diocese also reports that the discharges have transported sediment, gravel, and dirt from the Stevens’ property and caused significant soil erosion on cemetery property.  On multiple dates, the discharges have reportedly desecrated grave sites at St. Mary’s by covering them with debris and by eroding them.  

In addition to the impacts at the cemetery, the complaint alleges that illegal stormwater discharges have on multiple dates caused runoff to flow downslope onto Route 281 where it has overwhelmed the stormwater collection system, flooded the road, and threatened public safety.

According to the complaint, since July 2013, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has informed Stevens of the violations of state environmental law and sought his cooperation in correcting them.  However, Stevens has not corrected the violations and his illegal discharges allegedly continue.  

In the suit, Attorney General Schneiderman asks the court to require Steven to take several actions, including to:

  • immediately cease violation of State environmental laws; 
  • immediately abate the public nuisance he has created; 
  • mitigate and remediate the harm from the violations, as directed by DEC; and 
  • to pay civil penalties, as determined by the court;

Attorney General Schneiderman thanks the DEC for its assistance in this matter.

This case is being handled by Assistant Attorneys General Joseph M. Kowalczyk and Michael J. Myers, and Environmental Scientists Mauricio Roma and Charles Silver, with support from Environmental Protection Bureau Chief Lemuel M. Srolovic, Executive Deputy Attorney General for Social Justice Alvin Bragg and First Deputy for Affirmative Litigation Janet Sabel.  DEC Region 7 Regional Attorney Joseph Sluzar and Environmental Program Specialist Scott Cook assisted in the case.