A.G. Schneiderman Announces Contempt Charges Against Cortlandville Resident Whose Illegal Storm water Discharges Eroded Graves In Neighboring Cemetery

James Stevens Violated Court Order to Remedy Illegal Storm water Discharges After Storm water from Stevens’ Property Desecrated Graves and Necessitated Disinterment and Reburials at St. Mary’s Cemetery

Schneiderman: Those Who Put New York Families and Communities in Harm’s Way Will Be Held Accountable

ALBANY – Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today announced that he has obtained civil and criminal contempt findings against a Cortlandville resident for causing the flooding of a cemetery and state roadway.  New York Supreme Court Justice Hon. Phillip R. Rumsey, found James C. Stevens, III of Cortlandville, in contempt for failing to take court-ordered actions to remedy illegal diversions of water from his property onto St. Mary’s Cemetery and New York State Route 281.  The cemetery flooding has resulted in the desecration of grave sites, and necessitated the disinterment and reburial of eighteen people.

“New York’s environmental and public nuisance laws are in place to ensure that individuals, their families, and our communities are properly protected,” Attorney General Schneiderman said. “No one is above the law.  My office will remain vigilant in holding fully accountable those who put New Yorkers in harm’s way.”

Beginning around July 2012, Stevens altered the flow of stormwater runoff on his Ridgeway Avenue property by constructing a stormwater diversion project designed to capture as much runoff as possible, redirect it through a several hundred foot long drainage swale, and discharge it onto St. Mary’s Cemetery. As a result, stormwater from over 100 acres of land that had previously drained into a wooded area was redirected onto burial plots at St. Mary’s Cemetery and ultimately State Route 281.  

After the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) referred this matter for prosecution, Attorney General Schneiderman’s office filed a lawsuit against the landowner in November 2014.  The suit charged that Stevens’ construction of the stormwater diversion project and discharge of stormwater without obtaining a DEC permit and implementing a stormwater pollution prevention plan violated the state’s Environmental Conservation laws. The suit also charged that his illegal activities injured the property, health, safety or comfort of a considerable number of persons and thus constituted a public nuisance under state law. 

In December 2014, Attorney General Schneiderman’s office obtained a court order, in the form of a preliminary injunction and consent order, in Cortland County Supreme Court, requiring – among other things – that Stevens cease discharging stormwater from the stormwater diversion project until he obtain a DEC permit and implement a DEC-approved stormwater pollution prevention plan. The preliminary injunction and consent order also directed Stevens to implement a DEC-approved engineering plan for controlling these discharges and preventing future down-gradient harm.

In December 2015, Attorney General Schneiderman’s office obtained a court order establishing Stevens’ liability on both the Environmental Conservation law and public nuisance causes of action. This order also found that the cemetery suffered from “significant” erosion following construction of Stevens’ stormwater diversion project and that storm water discharges from the project caused flooding and unsafe driving conditions on State Route 281.

In the decision and order announced today by Attorney General Schneiderman, New York Supreme Court Judge Phillip R. Rumsey found that Stevens admitted to willfully disobeying the December 2014 preliminary injunction and consent order by failing to submit to DEC an approvable plan for controlling stormwater pollution, including specifications for abating potential future impacts to St. Mary’s Cemetery and State Route 281. The order includes:

  • a civil contempt penalty requiring Stevens to follow a specific timeline in the design, engineering, and construction of a comprehensive stormwater control system, including submittal to DEC of a project plan.  The civil contempt against Stevens will be purged if he completes the necessary  stormwater control system; and  
  • a criminal contempt penalty of incarceration in the Cortland County Jail for 10 days, with this jail time suspended upon the condition that Stevens complete 20 hours of community service by serving meals through the Grace Episcopal Church of Cortland, New York Loaves and Fishes program. 

Attorney General Schneiderman’s efforts cited 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 eighteen of their loved ones due to significant erosion caused by Stevens’ illegal stormwater discharges.  The illegal discharges have transported sediment, gravel, and dirt from the Stevens’ property and caused significant soil erosion on cemetery property. On multiple dates, the discharges desecrated grave sites at St. Mary’s by covering them with debris and by eroding them. 

Attorney General Schneiderman’s office has also established that, in addition to the impacts at the cemetery, the illegal stormwater discharges had, 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.

The Attorney General thanks DEC engineer Carol Lamb-Lafay, Region 7 Regional Attorney Joseph Sluzar and Environmental Program Specialist Scott Cook for their assistance in the case.

This case is being handled by Assistant Attorneys General Joseph M. Kowalczyk, Michael J. Myers and Brian Lusignan, and Environmental Scientists Mauricio Roma and Charles Silver. The Environmental Protection Bureau is led by Lemuel M. Srolovic and is part of the Division of Social Justice, which is led by Executive Deputy Attorney General for Social Justice Alvin Bragg.