A Greener Governor?

by Anne Schwartz, Nov 17, 2006

Under the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress, the federal government has reduced conservation funding and, in recent years, provided no money for urban parks. Funding for the National Park system has also been cut, which has starved New York harbor’s Gateway National Recreation Area of money needed to make it the great urban national park it was planned to be.

Come January, Democrats will head the congressional committees with jurisdiction over the Land and Water Conservation Fund and Urban Parks and Recreation Recovery, which are key sources of funding for land conservation and urban park restoration. Since Democrats tend to represent urban areas and be more responsive to urban concerns, they may be inclined to restore appropriations for city parks and direct funding to Gateway and other urban national parks."But the budget numbers haven’t changed,” said Alan Front, senior vice president of The Trust for Public Land, which works to increase federal funding for parks and open space. "That may stop the new chairmen with the best intentions from doing what they might want to do in terms of open space spending."

Park advocates expect Governor-elect Eliot Spitzer to continue his strong support for protecting open space in New York City. As attorney general, Spitzer defended the public’s interest in parkland several times. Early in his first term as New York State attorney general, he sued to stop former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani from auctioning off hundreds of community gardens on city-owned land. He later negotiated a compromise with Mayor Michael Bloomberg that protected nearly 200 gardens and set up a public review process for the rest.

Any future attempts by city officials to alienate parkland, or take it over for another use, may be not be so easily approved under a Spitzer administration. His community garden lawsuit was based in part on the legal argument that the gardens were de facto parks and could not be taken from public use without state legislative approval. In the last few years, the city has won state approval to take significant chunks of parkland for non-park uses, including the filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park and a new stadium for the Yankees replacing Macombs Dam Park. Christian DiPalermo, executive director of the parks advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks, said, “We hope to work with Spitzer’s administration to strengthen the alienation laws in the state, so parkland isn’t the first choice but rather the last.”

As part of Spitzer’s very comprehensive environmental agenda, laid out in a response to a questionnaire by the New York League of Conservation Voters, he promised to build on Governor George Pataki’s open space legacy and preserve open space and parks in cities. He is expected to continue the state’s financial support, committed under Pataki, of the two large new waterfront parks planned or being built in the city: Hudson River Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park. Also, soon after Spitzer takes office, he will have an opportunity to select the new chair of the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation, a city-state authority that is overseeing the development of the island and its open space. Park advocates are hoping that Spitzer will become actively involved in the project and finally follow through on a plan for the island.

Spitzer also said he would write comprehensive environmental justice regulations, which could mean support for more parks, greenery and recreation in communities of color.

In the coming years, New York City may also benefit from an increase in allocations from the Environmental Protection Fund, the source of nearly all state funding for urban park and waterfront development, as well as for open space and solid waste programs. In recent years, $125 million a year has generally been allocated from the fund, an amount insufficient to meet the state’s environmental, park and open space needs. (This fiscal year, however, Pataki and the legislature substantially increased spending from the fund to $225 million.) To increase appropriations from the fund without raising taxes, Spitzer supports the “bigger better bottle bill,” which would provide the fund with the unclaimed deposits, estimated to be more than $100 million a year, now kept by the beverage industry.