Friday, 08 May 2009 00:00In 2007, control of several county highways and 10 county parks were transferred to the town of North Hempstead and the Village of Flower Hill. Many people concerned with parks and open space, including an environmental advocacy organization in a nearby state, have been aghast at this expedient dismantling of the county park system, designed to reduce maintenance and operating costs in the county budget. It has been reported in some of these papers and other media that the towns of Oyster Bay and Hempstead and perhaps other villages and cities have discussed picking off highway and park facilities from the county, although another Cone of Silence has been placed over the whole thing. Again.
Given recent disclosures, it is no longer possible to give the benefit of any doubts. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of irreplaceable assets owned by the people of Nassau County are at stake. A million Nassau County residents deserve to be told what is going on and what exactly is coming next.
Because although North Hempstead took control of county parklands in the fall of 2007, we now have a public admission that, despite warnings, the transfer was not done properly, as defined by New York law. The inconsistencies and contradictions have become even more apparent. I literally have no understanding of what is really going on, or why we are going down this path.
Last month, bills were introduced in both houses of the state Legislature in Albany to retroactively approve and legalize the transfer of nine parks to North Hempstead, a year and a half after town bulldozers had leveled some of the parks and rebuilt them, at least in some cases with virtually no public input. It is well-established that the state Legislature must approve “alienation” or conversion of any public parkland, which includes any changes or restrictions in function, access or ownership.
The state’s strict alienation rules were no secret. In 2005, when the deal was first announced, Newsday made a rare chastisement of the county administration for not realizing that “a county transfer of public parkland, even to a town, requires approval from the state Legislature.” A state Office of Parks web page at that time stated firmly that legislative authorization “is required if the park is transferred (sold or leased or given away) to another entity—even if the entire property will remain a park.” Strangely, the transfer of 6 acres of parkland to Flower Hill was drafted into a bill and passed into law in 2007, for better or for worse. But not the transfer to the town, which included hundreds of acres off Hempstead Harbor and Manhasset Bay, and other smaller recreation facilities.
Whenever these bills come up, one or two legislators routinely question and vote against every park alienation on principle, and probably would have noticed just how weird this whole thing is.
This all flies in the face of lip service about efficiency and cost savings. Transferring these facilities to numerous smaller units flies in the face of lip service about efficiency, cost savings and consolidation. At the same time the county was handing over parks all over the Port Washington peninsula, it was expending money to refurbish out-of-the-way Stannards Book Park, a little-known county facility near the railroad station. This refurbishment was a good thing, accomplished through intermunicipal cooperation and public involvement, but in this context makes the transfers of the other parks even more confusing. In 2004 and 2006, Nassau County residents approved $150 million in bonding to acquire open space and improve parks. There is a distinct lack of logic and consistent policy.
I know, I know. All county residents are welcome at these transferred facilities (if they will even know to look for them). However, it is well-established that municipalities can limit access to non-residents, and unlike many transfer bills and agreements, there is no penalty or procedure on paper if any of them do. And most of the people who paid to build and maintain these parks have lost all input and control.
Reportedly over 800 acres of prime, popular parks and preserves may be going next. We don’t know. A critical bar that protects the character of our neighborhoods has been lowered to an incredible, dangerous degree.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org