October 29, 2009
Historic burial ground saved
By Howard Prosnitz
After more than three years of legal wrangling, the Old Burial Ground at 662 Pomander Walk has been saved from future development. On Oct. 20 township officials signed a conservation easement deed with the Meadowlands Conservation Trust. The deed transfers development rights to the MCT, one of only two public land trusts in the state, according to Executive Director Tina Schvejda, and thereby preserves the land in perpetuity from development.
In addition, the trust presented the township with a check for $100,000, part of almost $400,000 the township paid a private developer for the site.
The 15,200 square feet parcel is believed to be the burial site of Colonial Dutch Settlers and their African-American slaves and Native Americans. Township maps before the 1960s designate the land as a cemetery. Speaking at a brief ceremony after the signing of the deed, Mayor Kevie Feit said that the transfer was "a long time coming."
"The burial ground represents not only different people and groups but different time periods," Feit said. Former Mayor Jacqueline Kates, who was serving in 2006 when the property first came before the council, recalled that residents throughout the Bergen County became involved in saving the property. She noted that school children from Dumont contributed pennies they had collected.
"For us, it is more than a riverfront property," Kates said. "It is hallowed ground. Slaves, American colonists, Indians and settlers were all buried together."
Councilwoman Monica Honis noted that fraternities and sororities had contributed money. "Young and old were involved. We had passion on all sides of the effort," she said.
Councilman Elie Y. Katz, who was part of the original burial ground coalition, described preserving the property as "one of the most meaningful projects I have been involved with in the township."
"The land is a wonderful riverside tract that is both beautiful and rich in history," Katz said.
Dee Ann Ipp, who led efforts to save the site, recalled observing a mound on the land when her family moved to Pomander Way in 1960. "I was a child and remember being startled by its appearance," Ipp said. "I couldn’t figure out what it was other than that something about it looked different than anything else I had ever seen, and that it was heavily overgrown with weeds."
That same year, developers bulldozed the mound to prepare the site for development. "The old cemetery had been undisturbed for centuries until it was hugely desecrated in 1960 for suburban development," Ipp said. "It has been a great honor and special privilege for me to be able to take an abandoned and desecrated burial ground and return it back to a state of reverence, sanctity and wholeness."
The deed, which will be filed in the deed room of the county clerk’s office, is "hugely significant, said Schvejda. "It means that the land will be saved in perpetuity. It is not a contract or document that can be held for a short time." Hackensack Riverkeeper Capt. Bill Sheehan noted that, although the property is small, it is an important piece for the MCT and Teaneck.
"The Hackensack Riverkeeper is all about protecting small pieces of land along the river," Sheehan said, noting that future generations will be prohibited from disturbing the property other than for purposes outlined in the deed.
Not everyone was happy about the land transfer. In an interview, Tom Zabriskie, a descendent of the early American Zabriskie family, asserted that the cemetery was part of Zabriskie owned land that extended from the Hackensack River to Overpeck Creek.
"It has always been my contention that the cemetery was the burial ground of the Albert Zabriskie family. There is no proof that slaves or Indians are buried there," he said.
The property first came to the council’s attention in 2003 when a Hackensack dentist acquired the property land to build a home along the river. Conservationists protested and the council agreed to buy the property. However, until the signing of the deed of easement, the potential for development remained. Only the part of the property closest to Pomander Walk is believed to contain human remains. Approximately two thirds of the property is landfill.
Hillside Avenue resident Laura Zucker said that an American Indian cemetery may have extended north to Cedar Lane and beyond. She described herself as a taxpayer who has become spokesperson for the two Indians tribes. "The front part is protected. Nothing is going to go on it except some sort of primitive pathway," she said