Hempstead Lake State Park: Legal Issues

DECEMBER 2017 by Brien Weiner

In the October Skimmer, we described our objections to proposed “improvements” at Hempstead Lake State Park (HLSP) including the loss of wetlands, the removal of 3100 trees, and the creation of 5 miles of new trails. The project continues to be a volatile issue. For those readers new to the issue, 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 from HLSP to Bay Park. LWTB 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. GOSR has allocated $34.5 million of that grant to State Parks for HLSP, much of which is designated for increasing recreational use rather than flood mitigation.

Mike Sperling, Jim Brown, and I met with GOSR, State Parks, and their contractors to discuss HLSP at the end of September. We were joined by the Seatuck Environmental Association, which has been contracted by GOSR for bird and fish surveys. We presented our concerns and were told that the environmental impact of the HLSP project had been reduced as a result of input from Seatuck, SSAS, and the Citizen’s Advisory Committee (CAC) for LWTB. GOSR, however, refused to put this reduced impact in writing and continued to deny us access to the design plans for HLSP. Further, at a subsequent CAC meeting, SSAS was informed that this reduced impact would still result in the removal of 2800 trees and a loss of wetlands.

GOSR stated that they expect to issue a “finding of no significant impact” (FONSI) for the HLSP project. This means that they would not have to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which provides an analysis of impacts, alternatives, and mitigation, in accordance with the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA).

At this point, legal advice became crucial. SSAS had been searching for pro bono environmental lawyers for several months without success. Even finding fee-for-service environmental lawyers who would work on the side of conservation as opposed to development proved to be difficult. Our board authorized the expenditure of $1000 for legal advice, of which $750 was spent. We were lucky to find and retain a savvy and dynamic attorney, Carolyn Zenk, who has extensive experience with SEQRA and, in her mission to promote nonprofits, charged us a reduced public interest rate and even gave us some of her time pro bono.

Jim Brown, Joe Landesberg, and I had a productive meeting with Zenk. She explained to us that the design plans for HLSP, which we had requested under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), were denied in violation of that law. The plans were denied for the reason that they were not final, yet final plans had to exist because State Parks did send us a Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF), which had to be based on final plans. (When GOSR was asked why they would not release the design plans, they said “we do not want to alarm the public.”) Moreover, Zenk told us that the contents of the FEAF, which described the alteration of 60 acres of HLSP, easily met the threshold of a Type I action, requiring an EIS. She advised us on how to use the criteria of SEQRA to prove that the HLSP project will have a significant environmental impact, and how to present areas of environmental concern for focusing (scoping) an EIS. She also confronted GOSR’s General Counsel on the FOIL and SEQRA issues, and reported that he seemed more receptive to our concerns. The hope is that GOSR will negotiate with us to reduce the environmental impact, since a focused EIS can be completed within the time limit of the federal funding, which is GOSR’s stated reason for avoiding an EIS. Once a FONSI is declared, 30 days are given to challenge it; it seems counterproductive for GOSR to risk a lawsuit that would delay the project even further.

Zenk’s advice was formulated into a letter that we sent to GOSR along with a new FOIL request for design plans. We also sent the letter to other Long Island Audubon Chapters and NYC Audubon to collect signatures in support. The upshot is that HLSP is Nassau’s most important terrestrial bird area and last remnant of continuous open space, and far too precious to risk fragmented woodlands and flooded wetlands for lack of environmental study. If there are improvements to be made, we want them done right. Stay tuned and attend the next CAC meeting in December, details to be announced.