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Is This a Park or a Building Site? And Who Decides?

When is a park not a park? Or, more pointedly: When does a piece of undeveloped land become a park, in the eyes of the law?

This is the question which Myron Blumenfeld, local resident and environmental activist, wants a judge to answer.

The land in question is the tree-covered hill, approximately one and a half acres, standing uphill and to the south of the Harbor Homes housing complex, which is located at the corner of Port Washington Boulevard and Harbor Road. Town residents driving past on Port Boulevard (also called Middle Neck Road here) will probably notice only the wooden fence that now completely encloses the parcel.

To the residents of Harbor Homes, and others in the Port Washington community, this piece of land has long been known as Alvan Petrus Park, named after a popular and energetic community leader who was the executive director of Littig House when he died at the age of 47 in 1985.

But to the North Hempstead Housing Authority, it is simply the site where they want to erect a two or three-story building with 50-some units of senior housing.

“I can tell you one thing,” said Sean Rainey, director of the Housing Authority. “There is a huge demand for senior housing.”

“There is no such park; there never was,” asserts Port Washington’s Town Council member, Fred Pollack, who served on the Housing Authority from 1998 to 2001, a period when he was not on the Town Board. “The Housing Authority never passed that resolution (to dedicate it), it was not legally authorized to do so. I’ve checked the records, and the only resolution I could find was one in 1993 when the Town Board named the basketball court on that property after Mr. Petrus. It is not a park, and no state or federal money has ever been used for it, to the best of anyone’s knowledge.”

“People can run around town calling it a park, but that doesn’t make it so,” says Matthew Cuomo, chairman of the North Hempstead Housing Authority (and cousin to New York’s current attorney general, Andrew Cuomo). “Folks calling it a park are either unfortunately mistaken, or are trying to throw up a roadblock to development that they don’t want. I can’t stop them from calling it a park – but state law requires that the property be used for housing. It is in a public housing zone, and has always been zoned for that.”

According to Cuomo, the housing authority wants to retire a senior housing facility at 155 East Shore Road, in Great Neck, and move half of the approximately 99 residents to the building they want to construct at Harbor Homes, and half to somewhere else in North Hempstead. “(The current) facility is a terrible place for seniors,” says Cuomo. “There’s no open space, and it’s on a very busy road. It’s across from a park (Manhasset Valley Park), but you can’t get there. Another problem is, it’s 70 percent studio apartments; the new one would have elevators and be all one-bedroom units.”

When asked what would be done with the Great Neck property when it is emptied, Cuomo replied he wasn’t sure. “There is some talk of ‘work-force housing.’ It remains to be seen if we can do that, but first, we need new, dignified housing for our seniors to go into.”

Cuomo insists that “as of right now, we can build 35 units” at the Harbor Homes site, but those would be two-story rowhouses, which he says are not the best design for seniors because they include stairs. He says that a change to the zoning code recently approved by the Town Council now allows the Housing Authority to build 50 to 54 one-bedroom units in an elevator building. Cuomo anticipates three stories, with the third story built partly into the hill, with some parking. “We want to keep as many trees as possible. We’re not looking to step on people, we want to be a good neighbor.”

“It’s not a case of Bad versus Good, here,” says Curtis Trinko. Trinko is chairman of the Residents for a More Beautiful Port Washington, which Myron Blumenfeld co-founded. “It looks good on paper, it is meeting certain needs. I’m not saying the housing authority’s intentions aren’t good, they are. It would be senior citizen housing; they’re not making a buck off it. But from our perspective, it’s just not good planning sense to do this. There is so little open space left, and if you let it go, it’s gone forever.”

Trinko adds that, with access to Petrus Park already closed there is no good place for Harbor Homes teenagers to play. “There’s nothing else public nearby – certainly they don’t have access to the (Sands Point) Village Club across the street.”

Harbor Homes residents say people are already complaining about teenagers hanging out in the parking lot. “But where else can they go?” says one parent, who asked to remain anonymous. “The playgrounds here are nice, but they’re just for little kids.” The next nearest park is Mill Pond, now under renovation and down a busy road, and Daly School’s playground is more than half a mile away.

Myron (Mike) Blumenfeld insists that, if the housing authority wants to build on this ground, it must convert the land through a formal process called “alienation,” which requires action by the State Legislature. “I was appointed chair of the Long Island State Park Commission from 1983 to 1988, by Governor Mario Cuomo. As part of that job, I became familiar with ‘alienation’ of park land. I believe that the case law affects this site, and makes (this proposal) an illegal alienation of park land. Therefore, Michelle Schimel and Craig Johnson and the entire New York State Legislature must approve. And the person who makes the decision will be the judge.”

When asked for her position on this matter, State Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel commented simply that “State law will help determine my actions regarding Alvan Petrus Park.”

Blumenfeld and his attorney, Joseph DiBenedetto, believe they have a strong case, based on documents they have obtained from the town under the Freedom of Information Act, and their own experience. “It has been used as a park,” insists Blumenfeld. “In fact, I visited it with (State Senator) Craig Johnson’s mother, Barbara on several occasions.”

Wayne Wink, now Port’s Nassau County legislator, agrees on the importance of the park to Port Washington’s late and well-respected legislator. “In my career, starting as an aide to Barbara Johnson until her death in 2000, that park was near and dear to her. I remember work we put into it in the 1990s, a ‘Community Revitalization Day.’ Barbara and I worked with Myron and others. She invested her own money to bring it up to good repair.”

State Senator Craig Johnson confirmed: “I remember clearly, from conversations with my mother, that this park was important; it meant a lot to her. In the early 1990s, she spent several thousand dollars of her own personal funds to refurbish that park area.”

Wink also remembers, when he served on the Town Council, discussing whether access to the park would be preserved through the then-impending renovation of Harbor Homes, which is now concluded, and trying to make it a condition of the renovation.

In the transcript of that Town Board meeting on April 22, 2003, then-Town Supervisor May Newburger said, “The reason this (requirement to keep the park as open space) is in here, is, the people for whom you are doing this have asked that they can keep that space, it’s referred to as a park…. This is, to me, an integral part of this little community. It’s all very well to have playgrounds for little children, but we’re always concerned about the teenaged kids and the kids who use the basketball courts…. We have talked at great length tonight and the community has responded to the need for this space for their kids to use for recreation.”

For attorney DiBenedetto, the transcript and other records are important, but so is the history of community use. “Whether or not it was ever formally designated as a park, it can be as simple a matter as establishing tennis courts, a basketball court, or a playground, and allowing that use to continue over a period of time. How long? A day? No. A month? Maybe. But this has been more than 10 years. The use becomes ‘open and notorious,’ a legal term. To say there has been no resolution passed becomes irrelevant. And once it’s used for a public use, it cannot terminate without an act of the Legislature, at the state level, no matter what level you were at originally.”

“I think we need to look beyond the legalities here,” says State Senator Johnson, “and ask, one, do you really need to build senior housing in this location, when there is already so much built in this town? And two, I take a little bit of offense to building here. I am a little bit troubled that this should be going on, right in this location.

“How much housing can you put in this one place?” continues Johnson. “Is it really worth the trouble to put it where you’re already facing some controversy? Rather than go through a possibly protracted battle, why not simply fix up the park, and recognize that there are individuals in the town to whom it is important to have a park like this?”

Johnson concludes, “It would be great if the housing authority could re-open it; they should take some very simple steps to ensure that there is a play area for young adults – which means teenagers – in this community.”

According to chairman Matthew Cuomo, the housing authority is now putting together its application for Site Plan Review by the Town Board, hopefully at one of their meetings before the end of August. “We usually only need to present ‘elevations,’ (architectural drawings of the exteriors) but I want to do more than that so we can go right into an aggressive schedule for submitting applications and receiving building permits.” When asked if he could see building some kind of playground there, he replied, “If there’s space for it, I’m certainly not averse.”

Mr. DiBenedetto says, “We want the proper steps taken. Whether litigation will be required, or saner heads prevail, remains to be seen.”

Mr. Blumenfeld adds, “I’d like to see the park reinstalled, and access maintained for the community. Let the housing authority and private people get the park up to snuff, and let the people of the community use this park, which was named in honor of my very good friend, Alvan Petrus.”

Mr. Trinko says, “I believe it’s a matter of communication and building consensus – people sitting down at a table – civic leaders from the Town, the housing authority, Harbor Homes, and the community.”

Perhaps it isn’t too late to hope that all parties can find some common ground.