"It is never the wrong time to do the right thing," Long Island Pine Barrens Society Director Richard Amper said at Wednesday's press conference and a phrase that he has heard many times from Joseph Lorintz, president of the Society to Preserve Underhill. The two were involved in Glen Cove Mayor Tom Suozzi's press conference, held in the entranceway to the Underhill Property in Jericho, at which he unveiled his plan to preserve open space and protect Nassau County's environment..
Suozzi, Democratic candidate for Nassau County Executive and environmental leader, urged the County Executive and County Legislature to join together and place a $30 million referendum on this November's ballot to preserve Nassau's remaining open space and protect its drinking water. The 81-acre Underhill property, which would be one of Suozzi's top priorities to purchase, is located above Long Island's main water aquifer and is a Special Ground Water Protection Area.
Suozzi and Amper, one of Long Island's leading environmental and clean water advocates, said their proposed referendum would "go a long way toward preserving open space and water quality on Long Island for our children and for their children."
Terming the referendum urgent and far-reaching, Suozzi said, "We are in danger of being cemented over by malls, housing developments and roads that threaten Long Island's quality of life and drinking water quality. Fortunately, matching funds now available will alleviate the financial burden on the voters who recently demonstrated their concern for open space by passing similar bond issues in the Town of Oyster Bay, Town of North Hempstead and New York State."
Twenty million dollars of the $30 million bond funds will be used to purchase several of the remaining parcels of undeveloped land in Nassau County with an emphasis on drinking water protection.
Nassau County Legislator Brian Muellers (D-Glen Cove) spoke about current plans to preserve that open space in Nassau County with the $20 million. "We want to create an Open Space Committee that will review the open space map that gives us an idea where the open space exists in Nassau County and then we can prioritize that," he said. "We need an ongoing financial source to preserve these locations. Once the open space committee has identified locations, we need an ongoing source of revenue - in the form of capital funds or a bond issue - we need to have continued commitment. We have so little open space left, and if we do not save it now, it will be gone forever and we will never see it again."
Another $7.5 million, according to Suozzi, will be used to properly maintain and improve existing Nassau County parks, preserves and recreational facilities. The remaining $2.5 million will be used for a county "Smart Growth" initiative that focuses on commercial re-use and redevelopment of important vacant and abandoned commercial properties that require environmental clean-up.
Often referred to as brownfields, these sites in Nassau include the former Roosevelt Raceway, The Hub, the area surrounding Roosevelt Field, The Cerro Wire property in Syosset and Grumman. "We should be recycling and reusing our brownfields sites instead of using up our beautiful greenfield sites like this one behind us," Suozzi said as he stood in front of the Underhill Property.
Regarding the controversial Cerro Wire Property in Syosset, Suozzi said, "There is no question that Cerro Wire should be redeveloped. The problem is that the developers came in and made a proposal without getting the consensus of the community... Part of what we are proposing with the Smart Group Initiative is that there needs to be a visioning process where you take in the many parties, developer, civics, community etc and develop visions that are acceptable from all different perspectives. We should build a consensus before the development community comes in by itself and tries to force something down the people's throat. Right now I think the property should be redeveloped, but the development is much too big as it is right now."
Suozzi is confident that the residents of Nassau County want to preserve and protect the environment. "I have been attending meetings for years discussing environmental concerns," Suozzi said at the press conference. "In 1970, people said too much had been developed already and it was too late to start now with a master plan. We cannot go backwards. I don't want people 20 years from now saying the same thing."
Many environmentalists compare Nassau County to neighboring Suffolk County in terms of land preservation. "The people in Nassau County need to understand something that the people in Suffolk County already do -The alternative [on the Underhill property] is developing 270 new homes and everything that goes with that - roads, school and government services," said Amper. "It costs more to develop a site like this with 270 homes than it does to preserve it."
Richard Schary, board member of Long Island Drinking Water Coalition, is getting very frustrated with Nassau County's inability to preserve open space. "Every time I pick up the paper, I read that Suffolk County has preserved more and more land. Suffolk County has preserved 65,000 acres and still counting. Nassau has preserved zero. Under the 1996 Clean Air Clean Water Bond Act, Suffolk received $38 million for open spaces of our taxes. Suffolk is doing great. Guess how much Nassau received? Zero. People of the Town of Oyster Bay and North Hempstead both voted for their bond acts. Underhill is a symbol that it is time to get moving because the opportunity will be lost. The time is now. "If the developers have their way with Underhill the rest of Nassau County will look like Queens."
When questioned about Nassau County's current financial problems and how this proposal will affect them, Suozzi deemed this proposal "good debt" and explained the difference between good and bad debt. "Good debt is when you match the life of the debt, liability and asset so that over the next 30 years the bond is issued, this property will be here for the next 30 years," said Suozzi. "There is no better investment than good debt."
Joseph Lorintz, president of the Society to Preserve Underhill, does not want politics to get in the way of the issues at hand. "This is not about politics, this is about the environment," he said. "We are here to support an environmental initiative - something that I feel Nassau County residents have supported in the past and will support in the future. I have faith in our residents and that faith has been rewarded twice already in the past year and now it is time to give everyone in Nassau County the opportunity to vote on an environmental bond referendum. It is important that Nassau County participate in any attempt that is made to preserve open space in our county. I have learned from experience the failure to have just one component - a county, state or town partnership - can doom a project."