Dying for space

A plan to expand Brooklyn’s largest Jewish cemetery could be killed because residents say the graveyard’s growth will literally turn the area into a dead zone.

Management of the 110-acre cemetery, which zigzags its way fromOcean Parkway to 18th Avenue between Avenues J and M, says it ran out of space four years ago and desperately needs to expand if it is going to survive. So when a single-family house at Bay Parkway and E. Fourth Street that abuts the cemetery came on the market last year, it planned to buy it, raze the building, and dig up to 300 new graves — which it could sell for $15,000 each.

But neighbors are irate because they think such a move would create a chain reaction of quick sales that will decrease property values.

“People will sell, including me,” said Edward Rega, 75, a retired contractor who lives next door to the house that could become a burial ground. “This is one of the nicest neighbors in Brooklyn. This will ruin it.”

Since it ran out of space, the cemetery has fallen on tough times, said manager Marisa Tarantino, who claims the cemetery needs new income to keep up with maintenance, and is desperate need of space for customers who are dying to get in.

“We have people coming into our office, crying, begging, pleading, to be buried near their family,” she said. “We’re reaching out to anybody who could help us to expand.”

But for the deal to go through, the cemetery, which has an entrance on Bay Parkway between 59th Street and MacDonald Avenue, will have to get city Council approval, and that doesn’t seem likely because Councilman David Greenfield (D–Borough Park) is against the plan.

“It’s a 150-year-old organization,” said Greenfield of the cemetery. “They had to know they were going to run out of plots. It’s just not a realistic plan to expand the cemetery every time they need cash.”

A 1949 state law requires that 10 percent of every grave sale be kept in a trust fund that ensures maintenance of the grounds. But Richard Fishman, director of the state Division of Cemeteries, said 95 percent of the land at Washington Cemetery was sold to Jewish burial societies prior to the law’s passing.

“The bulk of the money they could have received, they never received,” Fishman said.

According to Fishman, the cemetery has about $5-million in its maintenance fund, which pays out between $200,000 and $500,000 a year — but it’s a far cry from the $1-million to $1.5-million-a-year it costs to maintain the property.

According to tax statements from 2008, the cemetery had $22-million in net assets, with $2.6-million in cash and $15.5-million in investments at the end of that year.

The cemetery is still reeling from January’s storm, when 22 gravestones were knocked over by city sanitation crews. Before that, vandals toppled 200 headstones on the cemetery’s grounds. Cemetery management hasn’t fixed the fallen markers yet.

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