2013-07-12 / Editorial/Opinion

Bill Thompson Makes Us Worry

We like mayoral hopeful Bill Thompson. He’s been called a steady tortoise who just might win the race. We think that might turn out to be true but another metaphor comes to mind: is he a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

His staff contacted The Wave about arranging for the candidate to come out and have a sit down about his plans for the City and Rockaway. After settling on a date and time we got another call – could we make it a telephone interview? Uh, no.

Rockaway is geographically isolated from the City. A lot of Rockaway’s challenges and problems stem from our isolation. How are we supposed to warm to a candidate who wants to literally phone it in? If you can’t get to Rockaway now, what are the chances we’ll see you when you’re elected?

More troubling was his recent embrace of Governor Cuomo’s voluntary buyout plan for Sandy damaged properties. Actually, he said he wants to expand Cuomo’s plan which means Thompson is looking to buy out more homes at pre-storm values. At first, that sounds positive. But let’s consider what he actually said.

On a teleconference with various news outlets Thompson said, as mayor, he will “be buying damaged homes and properties on the coast from homeowners at pre-storm values. We shouldn’t be rebuilding on flood plains that we know that will be destroyed or incapacitated in the next storm. That is irresponsible, dangerous and costly.”

So what does he mean by rebuilding on flood plains? According to FEMA just about all of Rockaway is in a flood plain. So there should be no rebuilding in Rockaway? We asked his staff to clarify what he meant by “flood plains” and were told that he just meant those parts of Rockaway that were “significantly damaged.”

Thompson called this teleconference – he wasn’t caught off-guard. He’s got to be a little more specific. When he says we “shouldn’t be rebuilding on flood plains” he must realize that is a sweeping statement. If he’s only talking about oceanfront properties then that’s a far cry from “flood plains.” If he’s talking more about Oakwood Beach in Staten Island, which has had a long history of flooding, than about Rockaway he should make clear the distinction.

And let’s assume some people in Rockaway whose homes had “significant damage” wish to take him up on his offer and accept buy-outs at pre-storm value. Following Cuomo’s preference, Thompson would want these properties to be developed as parkland only. How would that work in Rockaway? He says it’s a voluntary program so that means an oceanfront property on one block would be turned into parkland and the next door neighbor could go on as is. Parkland here and parkland there. Is that his plan?

The City is offering a buyout plan that makes far more sense. The City wants the option of developing land it acquires. The City doesn’t want to abandon the waterfront and leaves open the option for smart, innovative development. By deeding property to parkland, Thompson is closing the door. He is, in effect, allowing individuals to dictate the future of oceanfront development. If a homeowner voluntarily sells his property to Thompson, that single homeowner is determining that the property should be open space forever.

It’s possible that in some cases, open space is the best course. Fine. Open space can be an option not an absolute.

If properties in “flood plains” are subject to repeated flooding maybe the answer is redevelopment. Maybe oceanfront restaurants built on pylons and hotels with parking lots constructed to handle flooding are things that might work in these “flood plains.” Maybe schools and other entities would find ways to accommodate the sea. The point is, we should leave the door open for options other than parkland.

We fully acknowledge that rising sea levels will be a challenge. But the human race is drawn to the waterfront and will continue to be. Thompson, wittingly or not, is suggesting surrender. He spoke generally but that leaves too much room for inference. Will he fight for affordable flood insurance or will he say Mother Nature wins that one, too?

Thompson seems to be a steady, deliberate candidate. Well, now we’re wondering. He sure seemed too hasty in dismissing possibilities for the oceanfront.

We would like the option of developing wisely than not developing at all.

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