Project to remove trees at Hempstead Lake State Park raise concerns

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The Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery hosted an environmental review hearing at the Rockville Centre Public Library last week on a proposed $35 million project to rejuvenate Hempstead Lake State Park.

The project seeks to restore the 521-acre park’s northwest and northeast ponds and to create new areas for treating storm-water runoff and collecting pollutants. Other renovations include improvements to Hempstead Lake’s dam and the construction of an 8,000-square-foot Environmental Education and Resiliency Center that would monitor the lake’s water levels and serve as a community educational and emergency-response facility.

In order to widen the park’s trails and complete the renovations, some 2,500 trees are expected to be removed. GOSR published an environmental assessment document on Oct. 5 that determined that the project would have no significant impact. The effort is part of the state’s $125 million Living with the Bay initiative, which aims to make South Shore communities along Mill River — which runs from Hempstead Lake south to Hewlett Bay — more resistant to future storms. Living with the Bay is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The South Shore Audubon Society expressed concern that losing the trees would tarnish the lush habitat. “This is the only place on the South Shore where we can go and walk and feel like you’re upstate because of the number of trees,” said Betty Belford, a member of the South Shore Audubon Society. “You certainly can’t cut down trees and think that it’s good for the environment. If the governor is pro-environment, you certainly don’t go about it this way without doing a full environmental impact [study]. Cutting down all of these trees is ridiculous.”

Belford, who has lived in West Hempstead for nearly 30 years, said she also thinks the project is being rushed, and that it would result in fewer bird habitats for migratory species, such as bald eagles and gray-horn owls.

“Many people come from all over the country just to go to this park, because it’s one of the best birding spots on Long Island,” said Jim Brown, a conservation coach and past president of the South Shore Audubon Society. “It’s very important to keep Hempstead Lake State Park in a pristine, lovely state.” Brown, of Island Park, added that widening the trail and building a visitor’s center might have a severe environmental impact on wildlife habitat.

Pat Aitken, who is a member of the Queens County Bird Club, echoed the concerns for the bird population at the park. She said that while it is important for GOSR to address coastal resiliency issues, it should not be the only concern. “Everything else should be put into consideration with regards to the impacts on birds and trees and the overall health of the environment,” Aitken said.

Members of the Nassau Hiking and Outdoor Club, an organization that promotes trail maintenance and other conservation efforts, also attended the hearing. Club member Guy Jacob, of Elmont, said he found it difficult to understand how the project’s potential loss of green space would support a no-significant-impact finding.

“The elimination of established trees from the dam wall could threaten the structural integrity of Long Island’s only high-hazard dam,” Jacob said. “Funds intended to mitigate flooding could actually exacerbate it. We should be considering a net gain of trees, not a net loss of trees.”

“Anyone who lives in Nassau County knows that Nassau County is overdeveloped,” said Steven Rolston, of Baldwin. “We cannot afford to lose one more mature tree, especially for a building.”

John Koziarz, of Rockville Centre — along with many other residents who attended the meeting — had hoped to get more insight from local elected leaders about their stance on this project. “We’re all here as citizens, and we’d really like to see our politicians step up,” Koziarz said. “Everybody here is concerned about the environment because it means a lot to us.”

“The Office of Storm Recovery is concerned that trees have weakened the dam and can result in serious flooding,” said State Sen. Todd Kaminsky in a statement. “Given their charge to review anti-flooding measures, this response is understandable. However, they must execute their plan in the least harmful way to the environment, and the estimated removal of thousands of trees is deeply concerning.”

Lawrence Levy, executive dean for the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, which oversees sustainability research, said that he has attended numerous hearings in regards to this project. As a Rockville Centre resident, Levy said, he understands residents’ concerns.

“The state has to proceed very carefully to make sure that it is not removing native species and disrupting the wildlife that may have made these trees their home,” Levy said. “I do believe that the state should at least be credited for having spent several years gathering information and holding hearings.”

GOSR recently announced that the comment period for Hempstead Lake State Park has been extended to Nov. 2 at 5 p.m. Comments can be sent via email to nyscdbg_dr_er@nyshcr.org or in writing to 25 Beaver St., 5th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10004. For more information, call (212) 480-6265.

Have concerns about GOSR’s project on Hempstead Lake State Park? Send your letter to the editor at ngrant@liherald.com.