Four years after the Obama administration agreed to establish a national veterans cemetery in Western New York, and 17 months after Sen. Charles Schumer revealed Veterans Affairs had selected a site, the federal government has yet to purchase the land.
The VA has an agreement to buy 132 acres in Genesee County for the cemetery, which would be located about halfway between Buffalo and Rochester and would serve the 180,000 veterans who live in those areas.
But the extensive archaeological tests required because of Native American artifacts buried on the Town of Pembroke property, coming on the heels of the initial difficulties in finding a suitable site, have delayed the development of the cemetery.
VA officials told The Buffalo News the agency hopes to close on the purchase this spring.
But they cautioned that design and construction of the cemetery will take an additional four or five years, and Congress still must appropriate the money for the project.
“We’re doing everything that we can to make sure that the veterans in that area, Western New York, are taken care of and that we can provide them the final resting place that’s a national shrine and a lasting tribute to their service. But sometimes that takes time,” said Kristen Parker, a National Cemetery Administration spokeswoman.
Local veterans have waited years for a national cemetery in or near Erie County, arguing that the closest such site, in Steuben County, is too far away.
The veterans are frustrated the cemetery is taking so long, but they look forward to the government’s building a cemetery worthy of the men and women who will be interred there.
“It’s never too late to honor our veterans,” said Roger Woodworth, who heads the Veterans One-Stop Center in Buffalo. The national veterans cemetery in Bath, serving both Western and Central New York, is about 100 miles from downtown Buffalo. Area veterans have argued for years for a more conveniently located cemetery.
In 2010, the Obama administration agreed to a change that made the region eligible for one. The VA initially looked for 200-acre sites between Buffalo and Rochester but later broadened its search to accept smaller parcels.
By 2012, the VA had narrowed its choice to a trio of sites – two in Pembroke and one in Lancaster – and Schumer that fall declared the VA had a site in mind. The VA itself has never confirmed which site it prefers, even after The News last March revealed that the agency’s choice was a parcel at Route 77 and Indian Falls Road.
The property is well-known in Pembroke and is described as pastoral by neighbors.
“It is a beautiful, rolling hill, very much like an Arlington cemetery,” said Pembroke Assessor Deborah Conti, referring to the national cemetery in Virginia.
The land for decades has been leased to a farming operation, most recently for winter wheat, but farming on the property ended last year, said Lee Veenendaal, whose late father, Leroy, bought the land.
Lee Veenendaal told The News he has a contract in place with the VA and expects the sale to close within three months. The VA will pay the market rate for the property, which is assessed at $160,000.
The VA said extensive archaeological digging at the site has held up the closing on the sale. The property previously was part of the Tonawanda Indian Reservation, Conti said.
“That was all Indian land. No matter where you dig over there, you will find something. I find stuff in my yard,” she said.
Officials with the Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians did not return phone messages.
The state Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation oversaw the cultural-resource survey at the site. Now officials are waiting for the VA to send along a revised agreement.
“They’re doing a lot of due diligence to make sure everyone’s happy,” Veenendaal said.
The VA expects to close on the property in the next several months, though officials are ready to proceed with their second choice if the purchase falls through, said Jessica Kaplan, a VA real-property manager.
“It has been a long, bumpy road to get Western New York a national veterans cemetery, and we are finally coming close to a deal,” Schumer said in an email.
The VA next would hire a firm to design the cemetery, with the planning process taking as much as 24 months, said Mark Tillotson, a top VA cemetery construction official.
Then, the agency would seeks bids for the construction of the cemetery. Work on the first phase, which would meet the burial needs of area veterans for a decade, could take 2½ years, but the first burials could begin after one year of construction, Tillotson said.
That assumes, however, that Congress will appropriate the money needed for construction.
Veteran advocates say they wish the project had moved along faster because the need here is so great.
“Would I like to have gotten it done yesterday? Yeah,” said Fran McLaughlin, director of the Erie County Veterans Service Agency.
This area isn’t alone in dealing with cemetery delays caused by real estate and other issues, said Richard A. Wannemacher, a retired VA deputy undersecretary who is vice chairman of the One-Stop Center.
“There’s no quick solution,” he said.