July 3, 2015

St. Mary’s repairs expected to begin

FLOODBob Ellis/staff photographer
Rainwater runoff once again flows through St. Mary’s Cemetery Wednesday afternoon. Neighboring landowner James Stevens has been ordered by state Supreme Court in Cortland County to upgrade a drainage basin he built on his property to control the runoff.

Staff Reporter

Two days after the deadline has passed for landowner James Stevens to restore a drainage basin on his Ridgeway Avenue property that has been blamed for causing repeated flooding at St. Mary’s Cemetery on Route 281 in Cortland, the work has yet to be completed.
Stormwater produced by heavy rains again this week resulted in additional flooding at the cemetery, as repairs at the cemetery are at a standstill until Stevens addresses the situation.
Catholic Cemeteries, a branch of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse, said last week that it will not proceed with repairs until Stevens upgrades the drainage basin he built on his property in 2012.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation determined last year that the basin, which Stevens did not have the appropriate permits to build on his farm, redirects stormwater into a ditch that runs along the north perimeter of the cemetery. In periods of heavy rainfall, floodwaters overflow the ditch, wash across nearby grave sites and leave muddied waters that submerge graves at the base of the hill in the cemetery. The stormwater also floods a portion ofRoute 281 near the cemetery.
The DEC and the state Attorney General’s Office sued Stevens in state Supreme Court in Cortland County in 2014. In its decision, the court ordered Stevens to restore his property by Tuesday, but repairs have not been completed.
Stevens also faces a separate suit by Catholic Cemeteries for the cost of repairs to the cemetery.
An attorney representing Catholic Cemeteries, Gregory Hamlin, of Utica-based Kernan and Kernan law firm, said that he expects Stevens to begin repair work on his property next week.
“The work Stevens is going to do, I’m told, will commence next week,” Hamlin said in a phone interview on Thursday. Hamlin said he was basing this on information he received from the Attorney General’s Office.
Stevens has met with a team of civil engineers who will determine what repairs are necessary to abate the flooding in the cemetery and on Route 281, Hamlin said.
A schedule of repairs is expected to be determined next week, and at that time Catholic Cemeteries will have a timeline in place for when the final repairs can be made within the cemetery, he said.
Hamlin said he did not believe Tuesday was a firm deadline for Stevens to complete the work, but he could not offer any specific time frame for the repairs to be done.
“All I can say is the work Mr. Stevens will be doing will start really soon,” Hamlin said.
According to the 2014 lawsuit, Stevens could face civil penalties of up to $37,500 per day for each violation of Environmental Conservation Law, with a total penalty exceeding $30 million. The actual penalty Stevens faces will be determined after the repairs are completed.
A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office, Doug Cohen, said Thursday that inspections have been done regularly on Stevens’ property and at the cemetery, including an inspection last week. Cohen said that Stevens has done some repairs on his property, but did not offer specific details about these early repairs.
“We have been in active communication with Mr. Stevens to ensure that he will implement appropriate stormwater controls pursuant to previous court action,” Cohen said, adding that while some upgrades have been done, there is more work to be completed.
Cohen said a new schedule of repairs is being discussed by Stevens and the civil engineers who will provide recommendations, but the schedule has not been determined.
Once Stevens has completed his repairs, the Attorney General’s Office and Catholic Cemeteries will proceed with their suits against him. Cohen said penalties against Stevens will also be assessed at that time.
The attorney representing Stevens, Mike Shafer, of Tully-based Riehlman, Shafer and Shafer, did not return repeated phone calls for comment before presstime.

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