The town has been asked to take over ownership and operation of the Dunning Street Rural Cemetery, the oldest burial ground in town.
The 5-acre site, on what is today Route 67 near the heart of downtown, has been run for more than 200 years as a private, nonprofit entity, but the cemetery association’s board of trustees is now out of volunteers.
“I’ve been with the board almost 25 years, and they can’t get anyone to take my place,” said Gerald Winters, a town councilman who is also secretary-treasurer of the cemetery association.
The cemetery trustees would like the town to take over, Winters said. The Town Board could make a decision as soon as Monday.
If the town does agree to assume responsibility, it will be contributing to a statewide and nationwide trend that has seen more and more small private cemeteries turn over their responsibilities to government, as the volunteers running the cemeteries age and decline in numbers.
“There’s probably six to eight a year,” said Eamon Moynihan, a spokesman for the state Department of State, which keeps track of private nonprofit cemeteries.
“It’s a fairly steady process,” Moynihan said. “There are about 1,900 private association cemeteries, and a handful get turned over to municipalities every year.”
There are about 4,000 cemeteries that are either religious or municipal, and are not regulated by the state.
Generally, under state law local governments have no choice but to accept a cemetery by the time a private association is ready to surrender ownership because the cemetery is also out of funds. Often, those cemeteries are tiny, as well.
But in the Dunning Street case, the cemetery has thousands of headstones, and the association still has $86,000 in the bank. That money would go to the town for continued operation of the cemetery. Those financial resources may be enough that the town won’t be legally forced to take the cemetery — although there’s sentiment that it should.
“You might want to take it over while there’s still some funds left,” town attorney Tom Peterson told the Town Board this week.
The cemetery is named for the family of Michael Dunning, a Revolutionary War militia veteran commonly considered one of Malta’s founders after settling here around 1770. His son, Michael Jr., operated a tavern at what is today the routes 9 & 67 intersection, a tavern where the first town meeting was held in 1802.
“The oldest section [of the cemetery] is really interesting,” said Audrey Ball, the town parks and recreation director. “The names on the roads in Malta are all the names that are back in there.”
In the last 20 years, commercial development has grown up around the cemetery. There are now fast-food restaurants on two sides, and a major shopping center on a third side.
Despite that, Winters said Dunning Street remains an active cemetery, with 12 to 15 new burials every year, and space for more.
Town Comptroller Kevin King said the town would need to work out a system for how the cemetery would be maintained under town ownership.
Moynihan said the state requires municipal cemeteries to keep the grass mowed, and beyond that how actively to operate a cemetery is an issue to be decided by local officials.
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