As trustees further explore the possibility of demolishing the St. Paul's Main Building and Ellis Hall, they voted 7-1 (with Trustee John Watras, a known proponent of preservation, opposing) in favor of making themselves the lead agency for the SEQRA (State Environmental Quality Review Act) environmental review currently under way.
In New York State, most projects proposed by a local municipality like the Village of Garden City or a state agency requires an environmental impact assessment as prescribed by the State Environmental Quality Review Act. SEQR, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's website, and requires the sponsoring or approving governmental body to identify and mitigate the significant environmental impacts of the activity it is proposing or permitting. The NYS DEC standardizes its environmental assessments by using the Environmental Assessment Form (EAF) and special guidance documents.
If the environmental review finds that the demolition project poses no negative significant impacts, the board would determine a negative declaration. However, if the environmental review finds that the proposed demolition project creates negative, substantial impacts, the board would determine a positive declaration.
"In the range of alternatives that are now before us the one on which the board has initially focused is demolition," Mayor Peter Bee said. "To explore that avenue, the board must go through a process. That process includes determining what environmental impact, if any, there would be as a result of a demolition project and, if there be adverse impacts, what steps might be taken to moderate those impacts."
Mayor Bee continued, adding, "We have choices in front of us. We have judgment calls to make. We could determine that there is no negative, significant impact and declare what's known as a negative declaration. We could determine that there is a substantial negative impact and determine a positive declaration. The consequence of those two alternatives is different types of reports and studies would have to be done. A negative declaration is a relatively or comparatively simpler process to go through. A positive declaration would result in a full environmental impact statement and a lengthy and detailed and very thorough process."
The board of trustees acknowledges that this issue has drawn up much interest and concern on the part of the public.
"There are parties out there that have indicated a willingness to litigate in order to advance their position if it be contrary to what this board does," Mayor Bee said. "Given that litigation is a realistic possibility, I think this board is well-served by taking as conservative an approach as possible. I think therefore we are looking very carefully at the option of positive declaration. That's something we're going to have to seriously consider as a very conservative approach."
Mayor Bee said he is not committing the board to that path because in the end, the environmental review may render a negative declaration. "But in that judgment call on whether to have a negative declaration or a positive declaration," he said, "one of the factors that the board would consider is the likelihood that we would be second-guessed in a judicial forum."
Peter Negri, president of The Committee to Save St. Paul's, an organization "honoring and preserving our community's heritage," told Garden City Life that the committee continues to monitor the board's actions. "Following the recent communitywide poll, we are even more strongly convinced that the residents are looking for an affordable solution that will preserve this community treasure. However, we still do not think it serves any purpose to comment on the issue of litigation at this time."
The mission of the Committee to Save St. Paul's is to find a reasonable and affordable plan to save the historic St. Paul's building and to keep it under public control for public use.
Back in December, a steady stream of approximately 600 people per hour made their way into the Field House to cast their vote in the highly anticipated, three-question St. Paul's opinion poll, jointly sponsored by the East and Estates property owners' associations (POAs).
Of the 5,002 residents who voted, 2,272 of them, or 45.4 percent, want the historic Main Building, along with Ellis Hall, demolished; 1,857 residents (37.1 percent) want to continue mothballing the building; and 873 people, or 17.5 percent, wanted AvalonBay to move ahead with its proposal for luxury apartments.
The village has since cancelled its Memorandum of Understanding with AvalonBay. The vote was unanimous.
According to Village Clerk Brian Ridgway, there are approximately 7,200 households in the village, with a little more than 21,000 people and 16,000 registered voters.
Although the Central and West POAs opted out of the non-binding, villagewide poll, they did mail surveys to their respective residents, asking them only one question - AvalonBay yes or no? Of the 572 households that responded to Central's survey, which makes up 40 percent of Central's total population of 1,434 households, 168 supported AvalonBay (29.4 percent) while 402 households (70.3 percent) did not. Two respondents returned the survey without stating a preference.
In the West, as reported by West POA President Paul Muscarella, who said households were surveyed through personal contact, a mass emailing as well as a mass mailing, 25 responses favored AvalonBay while 206 did not. Muscarella noted that the association received a total of 231 responses.
Taking into consideration the results of the villagewide poll (45 percent of the 5,002 total village residents that voted want to knock down the St. Paul's Main Building and Ellis Hall), trustees are taking the demolition option more seriously now than ever before.