It has been more than a year since the Port News last reported about the housing development planned for the tip of Manhasset Isle usually referred to as the "Thypin Steel" property. The Port News is therefore providing the latest facts here, as we know them, in the long-running saga of the development of this property. Plans currently call for the construction of a gated community comprising 96 units of residential "cluster" housing on the approximately 11-acre waterfront site.
There are essentially two facets to the approval process for the development of the site: (1) review and approval of the site plans by Village authorities, including the board of trustees, the Board of Zoning Appeals, and the Architectural Review Board; and (2) clearance from the New York State Departments of Environmental Conservation and Health.
In March, the Village of Manorhaven board of trustees conducted a continuation of the public hearing for a site plan review. (The first hearing was over a year ago, in April of 2003.) At the beginning of the meeting, Gerard Terry, Village attorney, announced that the Village has engaged Frederick P. Clark Associates, to function as an "expert planning consultant" to the board of trustees on this matter and in the matter of the Enterprise Zone. The first witness was Wayne Edwards, attorney for the developer, Island Estates Management. Edwards expressed impatience with the length of the approval process. He said, in part, "We have taken into account the comments from the Village, and the site plan has been tweaked. But in terms of what was presented in April of 2003, there hasn't been any change. Now I understand that the Village has retained the services of Frederick P. Clark as a site plan consultant....As you know, a long time has expired, when we're really no closer, at this point in time, in reaching fruition with this project..." In a subsequent interview, Len Axinn, spokesperson for Island Estates, was even stronger. He said, "We have done everything the Village has asked us to do. Now they have hired a consultant, and they haven't even shared with us the consultant's comments. It is preposterous to have these roadblocks." Mayor Capozzi did not respond directly, but pointed to the Port Washington Water District (which has issued a letter of water availability), and the fire department, which he said, "is not happy with your plan....The Chief...still feels that the equipment will not make those turns." When Edwards referred to the contract vendor (presumably referring to Thypin Steel, the property owner), Capozzi responded, "The Thypin family have never come to this Village, have never come to take care of the property, so you hit a bad note with me. The person has absolutely no respect for this board. If [David Thypin] is questioning what is going on in Manorhaven, tell him to come in front of us and say that." Gerard Terry then entered into a somewhat contentious exchange with Edwards.
Concerns raised during the public portion of the hearing included access to the pier and the beach (Capozzi said there will be public access next to MICA), and traffic safety at the five corners (Capozzi responded that Yennicock will be made a one-way street.) Other questions had to do with what will happen with the portion of the site that is now zoned G-1 (for governmental use.) Terry responded that part of the G-1 zone would most likely eventually be changed to "sanitize the zoning and make it consistent. It's the recommendation that our 'secret' consultant made."
The balance of the meeting primarily addressed the second major issue: the cleanup of the toxic chemicals in the soil, and the extent to which these toxins are airborne. This site, considered a "brownfield," was formerly home to aircraft manufacturers and other heavy industrial uses. It is being cleaned up under the supervision of the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) as part of its Voluntary Cleanup Program. The cleanup is being paid for by the Thypin Steel family, current owners of the property. Neither the developer nor the village administration could clarify the type of toxins. Edwards said, "I can't even pronounce some of the things," and referred the question to Deputy Mayor Jennifer Wilson-Pines. She responded, referring to the SEQRA report, "It was a report designed to cure insomnia. It measured about a bookshelf."
The Port Washington News spoke with the DEC, who said that the concerns were twofold: ground water and soil gas. Many, if not most, of the toxins are airborne, and so affect the ambient air quality. Jamie Ascher, DEC engineering geologist in charge of the cleanup, declined to answer our direct question as to whether the property is "really safe" for living, saying, "The determination levels of contaminants will be made by the Department of Health. We will rely on their expertise and their judgment." He added, however, "We would never restore any site to pre-release conditions. But we can restore it to levels that the DEC and the Department of Health determine are acceptable." In determining whether the levels of soil gas are acceptable, the Department of Health compares it to similar levels in Port Washington; if the levels are similar to the rest of the community, they consider it acceptable. In addition to cleaning up the soil to the extent possible, Ascher added that engineering barriers could be used to minimize the soil gasses. These barriers, however, would only be used between the soil and the buildings; open spaces between buildings would not have such barriers. (Note: Edwards said that there is a deed covenant regarding the planting of vegetables.) In answer to this reporter's expressed concern about the danger to children playing on the ground, Axinn responded that, based on other developments he has built, he expects few if any children to be living in these units.
The DEC has required that the cleanup include a plume 65 feet down. In an interview, Axinn complained, "Who is going to be drinking from 65 feet down?" Ascher confirmed that this water is not being used for drinking water, but said it does discharge into Manhasset Bay. He said, "Because the DEC is charged with protecting the environment, we have required the plume to be cleaned up." Ascher added that the cleanup is progressing well, and said that the Thypin family and their consultant have been fully cooperative. Regarding drinking water, Tal Vacchio, superintendent of the Port Washington Water District, confirmed that the district has sent the village a letter confirming water availability. Because they do not draw drinking water from Manorhaven, he added that the property's ground water contamination does not affect the district. He did express concern about the sub-surface contamination, but chose not to comment further, referring all questions to the DEC.
The developer has chosen not to build on the ground floor, although the DEC has not imposed such a requirement. All living units will be on the second floor; the ground floor will be used for garages, storage space, and/or laundry rooms. This reporter asked why, if the developer believes the units will be safe for living after the cleanup, they are not building on the ground floor. Axinn responded, "We are using a 'belt-and-suspenders' approach." This reporter took this to mean that they are being super-cautious about possible contamination.
At least two local environmental organizations are very concerned about the toxicity of the site: Grassroots Environmental Education and Residents for a More Beautiful Port Washington. Patti Wood, founder and executive director of Grassroots and chair of a committee of the Residents Board of Directors that is monitoring the site cleanup, said, "Even with today's state-of-the-art remediation technologies, brownfields such as this can never be fully cleaned up." Wood said that she believes that the current standards being used by the DEC and the Department of Health are too low. "Scientists are just now discovering the effects of chronic low level exposures to toxic chemicals. Remediation standards often lag behind current scientific findings." She added, "It is important to know that when chemicals come under review or re-registration by the EPA, acceptable exposure levels are often revised downward." Wood said that she fully supports the new legislation to clean up and utilize brownfield sites, but not for residential use. "Light industry or playing fields would be more appropriate" she said, "anything except a residence where gases can be trapped inside family living spaces." The Executive Board of Residents for a More Beautiful Port Washington issued the following statement: "We commend the DEC for its efforts to remediate the brownfield at the former Thypin Steel property. We note the restriction placed on the use of the first floors of the units and therefore we remain concerned about the long-term health issues related to the construction of residential housing at this site." At the public hearing, Peter Dejana, a local businessman, pointed out that, even though all the government agencies had given their approval of the cleanup of a site on Port Washington Boulevard that had been home to a dry cleaning establishment, when Residents stepped in it was decided that the facility would not be used for a restaurant. He commended the board for their caution, even though he said he understood the developer's frustration.
The public hearing was continued. For construction to move forward, in addition to the clearance from the State DEC and Department of Health, the Manorhaven board of trustees must complete the review and approval of the site plan. The village Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) needs to rule on requested variances for height, space between buildings, and most likely permission for a three-story building. The plans will then go to the Architectural Review Board for overall aesthetics. The next step is back to the board of trustees for subdivision. All things considered, the saga of Thypin Steel property will most likely continue for some time to come.