Thursday, May 20, 2010

State Delays Reservoir Redevelopment

Parks Explains Need to Cut Down 65 Trees for Phase One

By Conor Greene

While the city Parks Department is prepared to move forward with its phase one redevelopment of Ridgewood Reservoir, it appears that the second phase - which will determine the future use of the property - is on hold as the state decides whether the land should be designated a wetland.

As has been reported, the state Department of Environmental Conservation is currently investigating whether to classify the property on the Queens-Brooklyn border, which contains three basins, as wetlands. Doing so would complicate the Parks Department’s proposed plans for the site, which range from keeping it entirely natural to building ball fields in one of the basins.

“The determination to regulate an area is based on its characteristics and functions as a wetland,” wrote DEC spokesman Thomas Panzone. “In the years since the reservoir was decommissioned, the basins, or part of the basins, have developed some wetland characteristics such as seasonally or permanently wet areas and wetland-dependant vegetation.”

Panzone added that the agency’s investigation comes as a result of a request to map the reservoir as a wetland. That request was made by the public through local elected officials, according to activists that have been lobbying for the site to be kept in its natural state.

Those activists, including David Quintana of Ozone Park, were surprised to learn this week that Parks plans to cut down 65 trees as part of phase one. That aspect of the project, estimated at $7.6 million, includes new lighting and fencing along the perimeter of the basins and better handicap accessibility.

Parks says that, of the 65 trees, nine are dead and the remaining 56 are invasive species, have weak root systems or are compromising existing infrastructure. Three are being removed to create the ADA path. A parks spokeswoman added that “all of our plans for phase one were approved by all the appropriate agencies, and we will continue working with them as we move forward to develop this site.”

Quintana and others who attended a recent Queens Civic Congress meeting on parks say they were also surprised by comments made by borough Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski regarding the potential wetlands designation. According to several in attendance, she suggested the site might not qualify for wetland designation because the basins are not large enough individually, and would have to be connected to meet the size standards.

The DEC said that while wetland designation is normally based on size, “under certain circumstances other factors can be considered.”

There was also talk the DEC might instead classify the site a dam, which could require stripping the basins of vegetation, according to several attendees. The DEC noted that, while the Ridgewood Reservoir system contains a dam, it “can be managed in a number of reasonable ways.” Panzone added, “DEC is not aware of any proposal for stripping the basins and has not issued any such order.”

When asked about Lewandowski’s comments that the DEC is looking at it as a dam, the Parks spokeswoman responded, “That is not what the commissioner said and there is no discussion or plans of stripping the basins. As mentioned in the [prior] statement, the conditions on the site are being reviewed.”

Parks had been set to present three options for phase two to local community boards earlier this year, but that was delayed by the possible DEC intervention and wetland classification. Those pushing for the site to remain natural say they are hopeful the state’s involvement will prevent the city from building ball fields on the property.

“I think DEC is going to stall them, and that should be a long process,” said Quintana.

Steven Fiedler, who attended the meeting as a member of the Juniper Park Civic Association, said there is another complicating factor aside from the potential wetland investigation. He says there are two 46-inch pipes on Seneca Avenue and Vermont Place that the DEC wants sealed before any phase two work moves forward.

“That’s a huge undertaking that sets phase two back,” said Fiedler, who also chairs Community Board 5’s Parks Committee. “In my opinion, you are not going to see it for five years.”

Gary Giordano, district manager of CB 5, echoed the sentiment that state involvement is a good thing. “Whatever the technicalities of classification are, speaking for myself, and I think for some board members too, I’m hopeful that with the state DEC being involved, there is more of a likelihood that the reservoir basins will remain in very much a natural state,” he said.

Giordano added that he doesn’t expect to see any phase two plans in the near future. “I don’t think they are going to show anything, even to the community boards, until [the DEC investigation is complete] because one of the options may be an issue with DEC if it is to put ball fields in one of the basins,” he said. “I would think that certainly would be an issue with DEC. Sometimes more is less, and I don’t think anyone on our board wants to see those ball fields in the basins.”

A number of elected officials have thrown their support behind keeping the site dedicated for passive recreation, including Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven).

“It’s a positive thing to keep the basin as wetlands,” he said in a statement. “My colleagues and I are doing our part to prevent development of the reservoir. Here in Queens, unpaved and undeveloped land is becoming increasingly hard to find, which is why it is important to protect these beautiful areas we still have left.

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