2001-12-15 / Front Page

Environmental Task Force To Decide Rockaway’s Future?

By Howard Schwach

Environmental Task Force
To Decide Rockaway’s Future?
By Howard Schwach

Will Rockaway be allowed to have ferry service from the east end of the bay to Manhattan? Will the Arverne Urban Renewal Area be fully developed? Will Toxic sludge be placed into Jamaica Bay borrow pits nearby the Bayswater shoreline? Can the mosquito problem be eradicated? Will the bay front in Rockaway be developed for recreational use, for commercial use, or will it always remain fallow?

All of those are important questions, and their answers might well dictate Rockaway’s future.

One of the problems faced by Rockaway, according to many of those involved with development issues, is that many, if not all, of those questions will be answered by a small group of people, few of who live in Rockaway, and all of who have an environmental agenda rather than a development agenda.

That group is called the "Jamaica Bay Task Force," and they have been meeting for years on environmental issues that impact on the bay.

Each of those members is an environmentalist in his or her own home area and they come together periodically to discuss wide-ranging environmental issues.

According to some, the members of this small, relatively unknown group have inordinate power over the decision-making process.

"If there is any single force in the waterfront decision-making process that has the final say in that process, it is the environmentalists who sit on the Jamaica Bay Task Force," Jonathan Gaska, the district manager for Community Board 14 told The Wave. "They make life difficult for those who want to see development in Rockaway in many ways."

"I know that they have good intentions," Gaska adds, "but they are often over-zealous and their contentions often border on what the normal observer would consider foolish."

Gaska points to a number of examples of the power that the environmentalists have in Rockaway.

"Parks Department was cleaning up the Sommerville area of Arverne," Gaska says. "They were removing old tires and filling standing pools of water to help get rid of the mosquitoes that plague the area each summer. They went a foot or two out of the designated area with their bulldozers and the environmentalists who were monitoring the process made them stop cleaning. The Department of Environmental Conservation sued them and the mosquito problem grew worse because they could not clean the area."

"When the welfare of birds, fish and worms supercede the welfare of human beings, then we have a real problem," he adds.

The environmental group has created problems for development in the Arverne Urban Renewal area in the past, and it might do so again, according to Gaska.

"Developing housing and recreation in Arverne has been stymied in some cases and made much more expensive in others because of environmental issues surrounding both Piping Plovers and a dune grass that migrated up from North Carolina seven years ago during the Northeaster," Gaska says. "Those decisions should be based on the needs of human beings, not the needs of birds or of dune grass. These environmental groups have much more power than anybody gives them credit for"

One of the amenities planned for Phase II of the Arverne By The Sea plan is a nine-hole golf course.

"We would have thought that the environmentalists would love a golf course," Gaska says. "It’s grass, it’s out in the open, with people walking around and enjoying the environment."

Environmental groups, however, have opposed the project.

"They don’t want us to fertilize the grass on the golf course. They worry about a ball hit out of bounds bothering the Piping Plovers or the dune grass," Gaska told The Wave. "We see an abandoned car and think of it as junk. They see the same car and think of it as a habitat for butterflies."

Gaska is not alone in his worry about the power of the environmentalists over development in Rockaway.

Vince Castallano is the ex-chair for Community Board 14 and a land-use expert.

He has faced off against the environmental lobby many times.

"These groups have an immense amount of power with the city and with the people at Gateway National Park," Castallano says. "That power is all out of proportion to their numbers."

"Anybody who criticizes the environmentalists or their power in the decision-making process is immediately called anti-environment. Everybody in Rockaway loves the environment. That’s why they live in Rockaway in the first place," he adds. "They take an issue to a congressman and they intimidate him. They tell our elected leaders that they will bring in the Audubon Society and the other big guns and label him as anti-environment. Those threats work wonders and the congressman folds like a cheap camera."

At a recent meeting of the Jamaica Bay Task Force held at the bird sanctuary in Broad Channel, the discussion centered around the loss of marsh grass and the dumping of hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage into the bay.

It also touched, however, on ferry service for Rockaway, an issue that has drawn lots of interest in the past few months.

While the majority of Rockaway residents would like a ferry service, the environmental group is working to limit its use.

"We are going to do a study on the way the wave action of various hull types impact the marshes and the shore line of the bay," George Frame, a scientist with the National Park Service, told the group. "We can then dictate the speed that a ferry would be allowed to travel through the bay."

It discussed development in the Arverne Urban Renewal Area as well.

"The Arverne development plan is an ambitious one with lots of housing," an NPS spokesperson said. " It may be too ambitious for a flood plane. We may have to work to limit the development of Arverne."

Many of those in the audience signified that they agreed.

"The inordinate power that the people on the Jamaica Bay Task Force and other environmental groups have on development is not good for Rockaway," Gaska concludes. "They stifled the idea of building restaurants and piers on the bay front. The bird folks stifled the idea of a bicycle path along the bird sanctuary in Broad Channel. They said that the birds would be bothered by kids riding their bicycles along the path. Now they are working to stifle development in Arverne and stifle ferry service."

"There has to be a balance between development and the environment," Castallano concludes. "There is no balance when a special interest group such as the environmental groups can intimidate city, state and federal officials to do their bidding."

Eugenia Flatow heads the New York City Soil and Water Conservation District. She also heads the Jamaica Bay Task Force.

At the recent meeting, Flatow called for that kind of balance, but her remarks at the meeting indicated that she favored limiting development.

Calls to Flatow in relation to this story went unanswered at press time, as did calls to the Friends of Gateway, an environmental group involved with the national park.

Dr. George Frame, a scientist with the National Park Service, talks about a study that could affect Rockaway’s future.

Eugenia Flatow is the head of the Jamaica Bay Task Force and also the New York City Soil and Water Conservation District.

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