Frank Ciappi visited his family’s burial plot at Weehawken Cemetery in North Bergen on Dec. 27, when he made a devastating discovery.
A tree-removal company the cemetery owners had hired was cutting down over an acre of trees, many of them apparently decades old, that had formerly shaded a hilltop on the east end of the property.
Although none of the Ciappi family graves had been damaged, dozens of other headstones were toppled and damaged at the foot of the hill, apparently by downed trees dragged across the property to lower areas for removal.
Ciappi, a resident of North Bergen, described what happened to graves throughout the cemetery as “criminal,” charging that the burial ground had been vandalized.
According to state vandalism laws, property damage that takes place in a cemetery raises a vandalism offense from a fourth- to a third-degree offense.
“The whole place looks desecrated, it’s in total disrespect. We’re in the holiday season, people are visiting these sites.” – Frank Ciappi, North Bergen resident
“They’ve been in the process for about ten days now,” Ciappi said recently. “Four generations of my family are buried there. My son is buried there. They’re knocking over and damaging headstones, and laying logs on top of them. The whole place looks desecrated, it’s in total disrespect. We’re in the holiday season, people are visiting these sites.”
Some granite slates appeared to be unearthed, displaced, and left upside-down, protruding from piles of tree debris several feet tall. Stacks of logs, some a foot thick, were laid directly on top of burial mounds.
Uprooted and unearthed
Work vehicles parked at the site displayed decals that read “Downes Tree Service,” a tree-removal company in Hawthorne.
The debris and woodpiles have rendered some walking paths on the eastern hill of the cemetery inaccessible. Debris blocked parts of the cemetery’s driveway. Thousands of square feet were covered in a knee-deep layer of soil and tree debris.
Dozens of food wrappers, disposable cups, and aluminum serving trays were discarded on the ground, littering an area of the property where work was being done.
At press time, Downes Tree Service employees managing the project had not responded to phone calls and emails requesting comment.
The cemetery is privately owned by a company called Weehawken Cemetery Co. According to emails acquired through Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests, Weehawken Cemetery Co. trustee Michael Baratta failed to obtain the required permissions from the state Department of Environmental Protection prior to starting the project.
Despite lacking the mandated approval, the tree service has already reduced over an acre of trees to stumps.
Baratta did not respond to numerous emails and phone calls requesting comment.
Lisa Coryell, public information officer for state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, said that township officials reported the incident to the Cemetery Board of New Jersey’s Consumer Affairs department, instead of taking measures through local jurisdiction. State intervention took place shortly afterward.
Cease and desist
After residents, town officials, and the media contacted the state’s Division of Consumer Affairs, an inspector from the Hudson-Essex-Passaic Soil Conservation District arrived at the site.
According to town spokesman Phil Swibinski, officials were immediately concerned upon hearing from residents, but the township’s government did not have any jurisdiction over the private property.
“We contacted the Cemetery Board, who responded back and let us know that the cemetery was supposed to gain approval from them before they made any changes such as this one,” Swibinski said. “Smaller, private cemeteries like this report to the state’s Cemetery Board. The township doesn’t have any formal authority over the cemetery, but we’re very concerned, and we’re happy to see the state board taking action. If these trees were within a public walkway, this would be a totally different story, but they were fully enclosed within a private property.”
Matt D’Alessandro, an inspector for the Hudson-Essex-Passaic Soil Conservation District (HEPSCD), inspected the site on Dec. 28, placing a stop-work order on the site effective immediately.
“I inspect sites to make sure they’re in compliance with the Soil Erosion Sediment Control Act, a state law,” D’Alessandro said. “I also notified the Department of Environmental Protection, and others at the Department of Agriculture, since they also have their own standards to inspect for.”
The stop-work order states that the project is in violation of the Soil Erosion Sediment Control Act for disturbing more than 5,000 square feet of soil, which creates a major risk of erosion, and is known to degrade the environment.
Could get expensive
According to the order, the owners of the cemetery may face up to $3,000 a day in fines for as long as the site remains in violation of that law, and the order will remain in effect until inspectors receive a corrective action plan.
The cemetery may be subject to inspection from other state agencies, D’Allesandro said. HEPSCD will also conduct several more inspections to ensure the cemetery’s compliance.
Matthew Baratta, a relative of Michael Baratta and a spokesman for the company, said in an email that the cemetery’s board of trustees would consider The North Bergen Reporter‘s request for comment next week.
Mike Montemarano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org