Town of Johnstown may seek $300k rural cemetery grant

PHOTOGRAPHER:
Gravestones at the Gross/Bosshart Cemetery on Route 67 in Johnstown in 2021

The Johnstown Town Board is set to discuss applying for an approximately $300,000 state grant to upgrade the town’s efforts to maintain and restore its approximately 18 abandoned rural cemeteries.

Town Board member Tim Rizzo said he will present the rest of the board with his proposal to apply for the grant funding at the Town Board’s June 3 workshop meeting.

“I’m going to shoot for $275,000 to $300,000, and that should be adequate to get a good chunk of everything done in meeting the law of what the town owes to these cemeteries,” Rizzo said.

Rizzo said the Mohawk Valley Economic Development District has advised him that the best path toward receiving state grant funding for the rural cemeteries is to apply for money through New York state’s annual Consolidated Funding Application (CFA) process for a grant from the New York state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which has a 75% matching grant it offers to economically distressed areas like the Town of Johnstown for the development or projects “to preserve, rehabilitate or restore lands, waters or structures, identified in the approved management plans for Heritage Areas designated under section 35.03 of the Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Law.”

Rizzo said the grant program will allow the Town of Johnstown to retroactively include the $10,000 budget it has allocated for its rural cemeteries each of the last two years as being part of the local match for the Town’s 25% obligation toward the cost of the grant, if the money is awarded by New York state.

For the last several years, Rizzo has been raising the issue of the Town of Johnstown’s legal obligations under New York state’s Town Law 291, which mandates the Town Board’s responsibilities to maintain old abandoned rural cemeteries, many of them located on farms throughout the town.

During the Town Board’s June 21, 2021 meeting Rizzo “surprised” the board with a presentation from the Saratoga Springs-based landscape engineering firm The LA Group, the company that designed the Gerald B.H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery in the 1990s.

The LA Group proposed a $15,000 plan to conduct a study that would establish an inventory of all of the town-owned rural cemeteries, a list, to the extent it can be determined, of whose graves they contain, and to craft a plan for what needs to be done to rehabilitate them and bring the town into compliance with Town Law 291. At the time Rizzo and the LA Group argued the study could be used as the basis for applying for state or federal grants to get the money to do the rehabilitation work.

But the majority of the Town Board at the time was not inclined to fund the $15,000 study, several of them stating they believed the town could incur hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs were it to ever pursue coming into compliance with the state’s rural cemetery laws.

Since then Town Supervisor Jack Wilson created a rural cemetery committee, which includes Town Historian Noel Levee, which has worked to clean up and inventory the known Town of Johnstown rural cemeteries, which have since swelled from about 14 to 18, and possibly more.

During the Town Board’s May meeting Rizzo said members of the rural committee are now researching the possibility of a hidden slave cemetery on farmland in the town.

“That could be a historic significance thing right there,” Rizzo said, referencing the possibility that additional grant funding might be possible if a slave cemetery could be discovered. “The (history) books say no that didn’t happen, but, all of a sudden, (research from members of the rural cemetery committee into) deeds say ‘yes, it did.’ There’s a conflict between two deeds. The original deed says there’s a cemetery, but the second deed says there isn’t, and the deed is after slavery was abolished … so, it’s like they were trying to erase the fact that they had slaves, or servants, in the Town of Johnstown.”

Rizzo said he believes this time around he has enough support on the Town Board to go forward with the application for the grant.

By Jason Subik

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