Thursday, June 4, 2009

Catherine Wilson.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Nothern Westchester

Paving Over Our County’s Heritage

Our region is currently celebrating the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s discovery of the Hudson River. But for thousands of years before Hudson ever sailed into the New York Harbor, Native American tribes such as the Mohawks and Mohicans lived in the Hudson River Valley. Evidence of their villages and burial grounds dating between 1,000 and 6,000 years ago have been uncovered in Westchester County at Croton Point Park. Sadly, that evidence is being bulldozed and cemented over by the County construction crews as you read this.

The Guardian spoke at length to a group of concerned local residents about their battle with the County to preserve the Native Americans heritage at this site. One local expert on this issue, Bob (named changed to protect his identity) discussed the events leading up to the construction project Paving Over Our County’s Heritage at Croton Point. He said, “The current construction is for a sea wall. The initial plans for this project called for an inspection of the area which confirmed and documented the already-known pre-historic site. Previous development and construction work done at the park in the 1970’s had uncovered this site”.

When the historical significance of the Croton Point site was confirmed in 2005, a Phase II archeological investigation was recommended. Calling for this investigation meant the County was now obligated to inform the New York State Historical Preservation Office of the initial
findings and that the site would then be considered for placement on the state and national historical registers. That status would give the Croton Point settlement and burial grounds the protection and dignity they deserve. Any future development or construction at this park would then be subject to oversight by SHPO and all construction permits would have to be approved by their office to assure that the historical artifacts would not be affected.

Unfortunately for the Native Americans, the County did not pursue a Phase II review of Croton Point nor did they ever seek any historical preservation status for the settlement area and burial grounds. Instead, the County opted to circumvent proper channels for their current construction project and have proceeded without the proper authorizations and permits from the SHPO. The County is even ignoring proper
Federal construction reviews for this sea wall project.

According to a recent notice to the Westchester County Department of Parks Commissioner Joseph Stout from the Army Corps of Engineers, obtained by the Guardian, any “in-water construction activities located below the mean high tide line and associated discharge of
fill material into waters of the United States proposed at Croton Point Park as detailed in your DA permit application dated November 9, 2007, could be accomplished under the nationwide permit program, provided that the work was completed in accordance with the general and special conditions of the nationwide permit program.

It has been brought to the attention of this office that historic artifacts were discovered during the construction operations at Croton Point Park. It appears that your agency had previous knowledge, as indicated on the submitted New York State Coastal Zone Management Program form, that the proposed activity could reasonably be anticipated to affect or be located in, on, or adjacent to, historical resources listed on the national or
state Register of Historical Places. The continuation of work after the discovery of such cultural resources….. constitutes a violation of the
general conditions of the nationwide permit program, and thus non-compliance with the project’s authorization”.

The Army Corps of Engineers in this letter issued a “cease and desist” notice to Westchester County: “Therefore, the Westchester County
Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation is hereby directed to immediately cease from performing further work in the discovery area”. The Corps notified the County Parks Department that “failure to comply with the provisions of this directive will result in further enforcement action by this office, including the possibility of substantial civil and criminal penalties”. (all emphasis added). The original planners involved
with this project correctly followed up with the County on their recommendations.

According to the Guardian’s source, Dave DeLuca of the County Parks Department admitted that the Phase II request was never submitted to SHPO and that he “never read or ‘forgot’ the recommendations in the original Phase I report”. Cynthia Blakemore of SHPO confirmed that the
Phase II report was finally sent to the State in 2009 at the request of SHPO. This report recommends a “data recovery” at the site meaning
the area has to be examined for artifacts and other historical remains. According to Blakemore “the site needs to be examined to determine if it is of historical significance. In order for this site to be nominated to be placed on the State Registry of Historical Places, it first has to be determined ‘why is it significant’? And the owner has to be on board.” Since the owner here is Westchester County, the County has to agree that the site has historical significance. Given that the County is circumventing permit procedures to advance its construction plans at this site, it would appear that the County is placing development over historical significance. According to the Guardian’s sources, the state process would also provide an opportunity to identify the extent of the historical site, what the significance of the site is, and how to redesign any undertakings at the site
or recover the artifacts from the site if a redesign is not possible. Any visitor to Croton Point can see the historical significance for themselves.

Scattered along Teller’s Walk are artifacts from the early inhabitants such as shell remnants of a shell midden. Shell middens are a heap of clam, oyster, mussel or other shells used in campsites. These middens are found near coastlines and major rivers, and generally date to prehistoric
times. A preliminary investigation of the shell middens at Croton Point dates them as being between 1,000 and 6,000 years old. According to local investigators, there is also evidence of a campsite at Croton Point, a village, and even a fort. Local and state archeologists are eager to investigate
this site thoroughly to determine its archeological and historical significance. As one local resident asked “why can’t we have a preservation
site for cultures”?

Other Native American sites in New York have fared far better than Croton Point. In 1998, Native American human remains were found during on a construction site of the American Rock Salt Company’s mine project in Groveland, Livingston County. The Commissioner of Parks at that time, Bernadette Castro, noted, “Representatives from American Rock Salt have properly notified both DEC and State Parks and with these findings, work at the site where the remains were found has been halted and the area protected.”

According to their press release issued upon the notice of these findings “the State parks provided the oversight for the archeological investigation and worked with the mine company to ensure proper treatment of the findings”. Castro assured that the parks department along with the DEC
would determine the appropriate treatment of the remains in consultation with Native American leaders. Castor vowed, “We are committed to working with representatives of the Native American community and the other parties involved to sensitively address the issues raised by this discovery”. Even though the initial discovery appeared to be an isolated find, the mine restricted its construction to other areas of the mine and
established a monitoring protocol to ensure that any future unanticipated discoveries were adequately addressed as construction proceeded.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation issued a permit for the American Rock Salt mine in Livingston County which contained “extensive conditions to protect archeological, historic and cultural resources. These conditions include avoidance of construction at the
southern end of the project, establishment of set-aside areas along Route 63 and requirements for archeological resource investigations t the mine site under professional oversight of the Rochester Museum and Science Center. The permit requires the use of State Parks protocols to notify Native American representatives in the event human remains are identified on the mine property. American Rock Salt is in full compliance
with these permit conditions.”

The NYS DEC did issue permits to Westchester County to proceed with this construction, but if these permits circumvented the historical preservation reviews, those permits would now be invalid. Local residents protesting the ongoing work at this site have been shown the DEC permits as so-called proof of the County’s authority to proceed with the construction. Local residents involved with this issue were not able to confirm that the DEC permits were ever forwarded to SHPO, or if the DEC contacted the representatives of local Native American tribes as mandated by Federal preservation laws.

In its submitted $7.3 million budget for the sea wall project [Croton Point Sea Walls Restoration Project #RCP09] to the County Board of Legislators, the County Parks Department promised, “An in-depth archeological study will be a part of the initial study work preceding design,” thus acknowledging the archeological significance of this site. Yet, only an initial study was performed. The in-depth follow-up that was recommended was never done.

So why did the County even acknowledge that Croton Point had archeological significance if they had no intention of following up on the recommendations of their requested report? According to the County budget for this project, it was to be funded entirely by issuing bonds. Could it be that the County knew if they applied for Federal grants for this project, they would be subject to the guidelines of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act? According to the federal guidelines, in any undertaking that affects an historic site, any plans should involve the public
and any other interested parties; in this case, representatives from the Mohawk Tribal Council.

Local residents investigating Croton Point have found evidence of burial areas at the bluff by the entrance to the park. Some burial remains were recovered during previous construction at this park and those remains were initially forwarded to the Museum of Natural History. The Museum turned the remains over to representatives of local Native American tribes for reburial. While those remains were at least correctly identified it
raises the question as to why those individuals could not be left undisturbed in their ancestral lands?

Why did we have to dig up someone’s ancestor just because County residents wanted a ball field? If the County of Westchester does not honor the remains of the dead, how can we expect to be treated by future generations? Imagine having your remains dug up and transferred to a foreign location far away from your loved ones and the area that you loved just because a future generation wants a parking lot? Is this the respect the true
founding families of our area deserve?

Calls to the County Commissioner of Parks, Joseph Stout, on this issue went unanswered by press time. Contacting the descendents of those original tribes proved to be a daunting task. There are no local tribal councils for the Mohawk or Mohican nations. The closest representatives
for the Mohican and Oneida tribes are in Wisconsin which is where they were located to during the government’s early 19th century’s ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans. New York State also abolished their office of Native Americans; there are no representatives for Native Americans at the state or federal government levels. In contrast, Canada has a National Aboriginal Branch in their Federal government and even acknowledges a National Aboriginal Day, June 21, the day of native summer solstice celebrations, in honor of their native peoples.

Despite the Army Corps of Engineers’ “cease and desist” order, the work at Croton Point is not only proceeding but workers at the site confirmed to several local residents that they have sped up the project to be completed in time for the Clearwater Festival at the park in June. However, Thomas Staudter, the Communications Director for the Clearwater Organization, told the Guardian, “We have not asked the County to speed
up any construction work on our behalf. All we need is a safe environment for our participants to enjoy the festival and we can work around whatever work the County may be doing at Croton Point”.

The sea wall project is not the only work planned by the County for Croton Point. In the County’s capital budget, several additional projects are identified:

• A $3.8 million picnic area planned for 2010;

• A $1.7 million RV and tent camping grounds planned for 2010 and 2011; and,

• $2.5 million of general projects is also planned for 2010 and 2011 including improvements to the wine cellars.

Do Westchester County residents really want more picnic tables, camp sites, and a wine cellar at the expense of our Native American cultures? The Guardian intends to follow up its coverage of the current construction at Croton Point and any future projects as well.

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