Hempstead Lake State Park: Hempstead Lake State Park Update

OCTOBER 2020 by Brien Weiner

Many readers may have seen our Facebook post last April when the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) began removing 1041 trees from the South End of Hempstead Lake State Park (HLSP) on Earth Day. It made a mockery of their mission to connect people with nature, as it was also the beginning of peak spring migration and nesting season for birds, as well as the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in our area, when open space was needed more than ever for our physical and mental health.

Nevertheless, OPRHP and the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR) were permitted to move forward with the project that we have long opposed (see our Conservation Policies and Positions page) because of the failure of our State Environmental Quality Review Act and Department of Environmental Conservation to protect the environment as they should. They allow the developer to serve as the lead agency in the environmental review - in other words, they allow the fox to guard the henhouse. Further, the Article 78 process to challenge agency decisions favors the agency and was prohibitively expensive for SSAS.

Fortunately, the largest area of tree removal, the downslope of the Hempstead Lake Dam, was replanted with native grassland habitat rather than mowed lawn, thanks to the efforts of the Seatuck Environmental Association. The native plantings will diversify and enrich HLSP as an oasis for migratory birds in a sea of suburbs where grassland habitat is lacking. Although HLSP will not have enough grassland habitat to support breeding birds, even small areas can help migratory birds, especially in the fall when the seeds on the grasses and forbs mature.

Advocacy by Seatuck, SSAS, and others reduced the total number of trees removed from 3100+ to 1799. We also succeeded in protecting most of the mudflats and freshwater wetlands of the Northwest Pond, which provide rare and valuable habitat for an abundance and variety of shorebirds, wading birds, and dabbling ducks.

Construction on the Education and Resiliency Center at Field 1 began in August. SSAS agrees with the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) that the over $7 million in Sandy recovery funds allocated for the building would have been better spent on flood mitigation projects, and that a repurposed building on the Mill River flood plain would have better served the community as a center for Mill River stewardship and emergency response.

An Article 78 challenge to the HLSP project was filed on August 25 by the Sierra Club LI Group and the Concerned Citizens of the Mill River Flood Plain, and a Temporary Restraining Order to stop work on the project was issued on September 3. The lawsuit focuses on GOSR’s failure to provide an emergency spillway for the Hempstead Lake Dam, which could result in overtopping, dam failure, and catastrophic flooding downstream during an extreme storm event. The lack of an emergency spillway was the cause of dam failure in Edenville, Michigan in May. The lawsuit also objects to the segmentation of the HLSP project from the Living with the Bay (LWTB) project and failure to consider cumulative impacts on the watershed. It further objects to the disturbance of wetlands and woodlands to install floatables catchers and sediment basins in the North Ponds. SSAS research and comments on the HLSP project were incorporated in the lawsuit.

Living with the Bay is a suite of projects to mitigate flooding along the Mill River, funded with a Sandy recovery grant from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. GOSR recently abandoned the Coastal Marsh Restoration at Bay Park that was the top ranked project in the LWTB resiliency strategy, and claimed that the permitting process could not be completed before the grant deadline. They reallocated the funds to constructing a sewage pipe from Long Beach to the Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant, from which sewage will be transferred to the Cedar Creek outfall pipe.

The Long Beach to Bay Park sewage pipe will run across Pearsall’s and Black Banks Hassocks, which support many birds of conservation concern such as the rapidly declining Saltmarsh Sparrow. GOSR’s Environmental Assessment (EA) states that most construction will take place November to March to avoid migration and nesting seasons, nesting deterrents will be used, Osprey platforms will be relocated, and wetlands will be restored post-construction. The CAC objected to GOSR’s abandonment of Bay Park marsh restoration, which would have attenuated storm surge, filtered pollutants, and provided habitat.

The LWTB project also includes installing flood walls and a fish ladder at Smith Pond, and removing both invasive and native vegetation from the pond. Further downstream, bulkheads will be installed at East Rockaway High School that will cause flooding of the unprotected homes on the opposite side of the Mill River. The original vision for Living with the Bay was a blue-green corridor with room for the river, but under GOSR’s mismanagement, LWTB deteriorated into a hodgepodge of gray infrastructure projects that will exacerbate flooding during storm surges.

Nevertheless, GOSR issued Findings of No Significant Impact for the segmented LWTB projects and did not complete a full Environmental Impact Statement. The Environmental Assessments can be found here.

The Sierra Club and Concerned Citizens of the Mill River Flood Plain produced a short video about protecting HLSP and the Mill River, which, at the time of this writing, can be viewed on YouTube.

For those who want to help fund their lawsuit, donations can be sent Sierra Club Foundation, 2101 Webster Street, Suite 1250, Oakland, CA 94612. Checks should be made out to Sierra Club Foundation, with Long Island Hempstead Lake State Park in the memo line.