In the News: Field of Dreams in Staten Island?

by Anne Schwartz, March 1, 2000

A Staten Island conservation group, Protectors of Pine Oak Woods, is fighting a City plan to create a complex of recreational fields in Bloomingdale Park. Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari and City Councilman Stephen Fiala originated the project to build three baseball and two soccer fields; six tennis and six basketball courts; as well as a parking lot and access road. The complex is slated for the 41-acre eastern section of the South Shore park, a forested, hilly natural area containing streams and wetlands.

The project addresses a "real shortage of ballparks for kids ł a sore need," said Jennifer Nelson, Director of Public Information for the borough president. "The South Shore has been a growing area, with a lot of young families." With this plan, Nelson said, the fields would be in a natural setting, giving children an appreciation for the natural world.

The Parks Department hired the design and engineering firm Vollmer Associates to study the feasibility of the plan, comparing Bloomingdale Park with three other potential city- or state-owned sites in the area. The Vollmer report, issued in July, concluded that Bloomingdale Park was the least suitable, meeting only 3 of 12 criteria, while the other three sites met at least 11. Compared to what is known as the Pleasant Plains or Station Avenue site, where a similar ballfield complex was originally proposed, Bloomingdale Park would cost four times as much. The higher costs were associated with site clearing, earthmoving, and drainage, as well as environmental mitigation.

Parks Commissioner Henry Stern told Mayor Giuliani on a visit to the park last year that the department opposed building the complex there. "We feel at Parks that fields wouldn't work because of the slopes and wetlands in the park," he said. A week later the Mayor announced his support for the plan. The Parks Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Another group opposing the plan is New York City Audubon. "Our concern is that this is a misuse of parkland and natural resources," said Sean Andrews, the group's president. "They are proceeding with the project without consideration of other options." He added, "There are recreational needs, but they need to be planned in a way that doesn't destroy a legacy of great open space. This sets a dangerous precedent for other parks and natural areas around the city."

The outcome of this David-vs.-Goliath battle may depend on the definition of a wetland. State and federal agencies vary greatly in their criteria, which allows groups to interpret the law according to their interests. A consultant for the borough president found only 2.5 acres of wetlands in the area in question. A 1988 NYC Department of Environmental Protection Watershed Drainage Plan, however, identified 18 acres as freshwater wetlands. Protectors of Pine Oak Woods contends that there are 21 acres.

In January, the State Department of Environmental Conservation ruled that the park contains no state-regulated wetlands. Protectors has filed an appeal of the DEC decision to the State Freshwater Wetlands Appeals Board. The group claims that the DEC disregards state law -- which is broader in scope and definition than federal wetlands law - when preparing wetlands maps. The group also claims that the DEC decision is based on incomplete evidence, and objects to way the site was mapped: DEC staff visited the site just once, accompanied by only a representative for the borough president.

Meanwhile, the City is moving ahead with its plans. A public hearing on the draft Environmental Impact Statement was held on February 28, and the final EIS is due by the end of the year, with construction to begin soon after.

Anne Sounds Off: Fund New York Harbor Initiative

New Yorkers might be surprised to learn that the New York/New Jersey harbor, degraded by centuries of urbanization, has been chosen by the U.S. Department of the Interior as one of eight "major areas of focus" in the President's Land Legacy Initiative, joining the ranks of such national treasures as the Everglades. To the state and local agencies and conservation groups working to preserve open space in the harbor, however, it's about time. Urban areas are largely neglected when the federal government allocates money for open space protection.

In recent years, our harbor has been undergoing an ecological revival. In the February 20 New York Times City section, scientist John Waldman reveals some of the surprising, forgotten spots where fish thrive and herons nest. Waldman writes, "...many New Yorkers take a dim view of their watery backyard. They believe it to be a dank and dangerous cesspool featuring drifting corpses and gasping flounder..." But, he writes, "New York Harbor is no longer uninviting...I am among those privy to the signs that the harbor is coming back, and especially to its recent signals: reappearances of birds, shellfish, turtles, dolphins, and other creatures long absent or depressed."

The key to the continued reemergence of wildlife is the existence of fragments of salt marsh and other wetlands in the harbor watershed -- just a fraction of the original habitat, but enough to support colonies of birds and nurture fish populations. These wetlands also provide multiple economic benefits: They reduce the amount of sediment flowing into the harbor (which clogs shipping channels), and filter out pollutants. "Wetlands absorb flood flows better than any technology known to man," said Mark Matsil, director of the City parks department's Natural Resources Group, one of the agencies involved in the effort to preserve harbor wetlands. Matsil noted that the most flood-prone areas of the city were built on former wetlands.

For next year's budget, the Interior Department is requesting substantial funds for the New York/New Jersey harbor initiative. The money would go to land acquisition as well as natural resource management, restoration, historic preservation, education, and recreation. Much of the money would be provided as matching grants for the two states. The local groups and agencies have compiled a list of key wetlands for acquisition. We should be asking our elected representatives to make sure that the final budget passed next fall ends up providing significant funds for New York harbor -- and that the states come up with matching grants.