Hempstead Lake State Park Construction and Destruction

OCTOBER 2017 by Brien Weiner, VP and Conservation Co-Chair

In the April 2017 Skimmer, Betty Borowsky wrote about the threats of development in Hempstead Lake State Park (HLSP). At the May general membership meeting, we presented a letter for members to sign protesting that development. In June, we posted on Facebook a notice of a public hearing on the environmental review of the plans for HLSP (the environmental review can be found at https://stormrecovery.ny.gov/sites/default/files/crp/community/documents/Hempstead%20Lake%20State%20Park%20Project%20Information%20Document_6-16-17.pdf). The following update is provided with the caveat that the situation is developing rapidly, with meetings scheduled in September (one will be just with Audubon and Seatuck Environmental Association representatives) and construction beginning in October. Please watch our Facebook page for further updates and opportunities to participate and make your voice heard.

The HLSP project is part of the Living with the Bay (LWTB) project, the original purpose of which was to mitigate flooding along the Mill River corridor from Hempstead Lake to Bay Park. The project is overseen by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR), and funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development with a grant of $125 million for Sandy recovery. The HLSP project, with a cost of $34.5 million, has four components, not all of which serve flood mitigation or Sandy victims.

1. North Ponds

The HLSP project would remove some wetlands and create others, install floatables collectors, and expand trails. Our objections include that the North Ponds currently provide valuable and rare wetland habitat of shallow open water and mudflats that are used by an abundance and diversity of shorebirds, wading birds, and dabbling ducks. Dredging and increasing water capacity may flood the habitat and make it unusable by these at-risk species, as happened at Massapequa Preserve, where a similar project made wetlands unsuitable for Wilson’s Snipe and Long-billed Dowitcher (pictured), now extirpated from the preserve. There is no guarantee that the new wetlands will provide suitable habitat.

Further, there is no guarantee of funds and staff to regularly empty the floatables collectors, which would then make a bad situation worse. Floatables collectors will not prevent microplastics and other toxins from entering the watershed, and are not a substitute for catching floatables at their source — the storm drains that feed into the ponds.

Finally, the expansion of trails and creation of viewing points around the North Ponds is gratuitous destruction of habitat and removal of vegetation that provides crucial food and shelter for birds. In total, the North Ponds project would remove 1,800 trees. The North Ponds area is one of the last wild areas of Nassau County, and as much as possible, should be preserved as such. Further fragmenting the woodlands and wetlands with trails and disturbing the area with recreational traffic defeat the purpose of increasing access to nature by removing nature from the equation. We agree with the Seatuck Environmental Association that the North Ponds area be designated as a Parks Preservation Area pursuant to New York Law governing State Parks.

2. Dams

The HLSP project would restore three dams. GOSR maintains that the vegetation growing on the dams and embankments must be removed, per Department of Environmental Conservation safety criteria, and proposes removing 1,200 trees. These criteria are controversial, however, as the vegetation provides stabilizing roots. It also absorbs water and mitigates flooding. Removal of all the vegetation at once will not only deprive birds and wildlife of crucial food and shelter, but destabilize the dams and promote erosion. It is questionable whether it is even necessary to restore the dams, since the water table in Nassau County has dropped significantly since the time when the dams were built.

3. Education and Resiliency Center

The HLSP project proposes a new, approximately 8,000 square foot building, at a cost of $3.5 million, for a field by Parking Field 1. We would prefer that an existing building be renovated rather than more habitat be lost. Moreover, the park is chronically underfunded and understaffed, and we see no written commitment to maintain the new center.

4. Greenway, Gateways, and Waterfront

The HLSP project would expand existing trails and create 5 miles of new trails, including a Greenway to accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists, and equestrians. It would construct a kayak launch, an elevated lake observation pavilion, and a new parking lot. As with the alterations of the North Ponds, we object to the fragmentation and disturbance of habitat. To nesting and migrating birds, HLSP is an oasis of green and blue within a sea of suburbs, and therefore it is Nassau County’s best terrestrial bird-watching site and a designated New York State Important Bird Area (IBA). It provides crucial habitat for nesting Great Horned Owls, resident Bald Eagles and Ospreys, and migrating warblers, vireos, tanagers, and flycatchers, amongst many other birds. Although the project proposes to remove nonnative plants and replace them with native ones, we urge that a more piecemeal and gradual approach be pursued: identifying and removing only the nonnative species and immediately planting appropriate ones in their place. But even this approach is useless and invasives will return unless there are funds, staff, and a written plan for continued maintenance.

Further, we oppose the multi-use trails, because they will create hazardous conditions: the danger of collisions between walkers and bikers, as at Massapequa Preserve, with the added complication of spooking the horses. This hardly provides enjoyment of nature. And we oppose the building of kayak launches that will increase boating traffic on an IBA for waterfowl.

We not only object to the substance of the HLSP project but to the process. First, GOSR refuses to provide the public with the specific design plans for the project, which are now beyond 60% complete, or the data on which their environmental review is based, despite requests made through the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). Second, GOSR is segmenting the HLSP project from the LWTB project, ostensibly to avoid completing a full Environmental Impact Statement on the cumulative impact of the LWTB project, and potentially violating the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). Last but not least, we object to the use of LWTB funds for projects that do not contribute to their intended purpose of storm recovery and resiliency.

The Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) for LWTB (of which Joe Landesberg and I are members) has been frustrated in its efforts to preserve the original slow streams, green infrastructure vision for the Mill River corridor, and to provide alternatives to the hodgepodge of municipal projects that LWTB has become. GOSR basically ignores CAC input. Similarly, a CAC meeting with State Senator Todd Kaminsky was unproductive. We need more voices to be heard, and we urge SSAS members to contact state officials and attend GOSR/CAC meetings in order to protect HLSP from development and our communities from future storms (which recent tragedy suggests will intensify with climate change and sea level rise).