Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale is the final home of thousands of people, but it is not, according to the association that runs it, a residential estate.
Ferncliff Cemetery Association has sued the town of Greenburgh, town assessor Edye McCarthy and the board of assessment review for reclassifying part of the 75-acre cemetery as an estate.
The land in question is a 12.5-acre parcel on the south side of Secor Road. No one is buried there, but the property is used to control stormwater and to store topsoil, mulch, yard waste, tools and equipment for maintenance of the 63 acres on the north side of Secor Road.
The south parcel also has a caretaker’s cottage. Under state guidelines, according to the complaint, land with a caretaker cottage and storage facilities that is expected to be used for burials is exempt from taxation.
But this year, the south parcel’s land use classification was changed from cemetery to estate, on the tentative assessment role. Ferncliff appealed to the board of assessment review and on Sept. 15 the board denied the petition.
The cemetery is asking Westchester Supreme Court to annul the board’s decision and to classify the parcel as a cemetery.
McCarthy said she has not yet seen the lawsuit, and until she does, “I’m not comfortable commenting.”
Ferncliff claims that Greenburgh officials ignored ample documentary evidence that establishes the south parcel as bona fide cemetery land.
In 1902, Westchester County designated 101 acres formerly owned by Norman Secor for “cemetery purposes.”
The south parcel was sold in 1908 and the cemetery reacquired it in 1950. Since then, Ferncliff said, the parcel has been used on a daily basis for cemetery maintenance.
Ferncliff serves the entire metropolitan region. In 2015, Ferncliff sold 530 burial rights, buried 926 people and handled 2,773 cremations, according to its nonprofit tax filing.
Many prominent activists, artists and entertainers have been buried on the land: composer Bela Bartok 1945 (later moved to Hungary); civil rights leader Malcolm X, 1965; actress Judy Garland, 1969 (later moved to Los Angeles); musician Thelonious Monk, 1982; writer James Baldwin, 1987; and musician Cab Calloway, 1994.
Ferncliff President Kevin M. Boyd states in an affidavit that Greenburgh officials have been hostile to the cemetery for years. In 2004, for instance, the cemetery sued the town to exempt the south parcel from taxation. They reached a settlement and state Supreme Court directed the town to classify the land as cemetery on the tax roll.
Nothing has changed on the land since then, Ferncliff claims, yet the parcel was “inexplicably reclassified as residential land on the 2017 assessment role.”
Cemetery land, Boyd said in the affidavit, is like a quarry, a “finite resource that is exhausted over time.”
Ferncliff expects to run out of “inventory” on the other side of Secor Road in less than 15 years.
“The cemetery status of the south parcel must be resolved,” Boyd said, “so that Ferncliff can remain operationally viable in the future.”