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Hempstead Lake Park plan aims to restore region hit by Sandy

The proposal includes restoring the Hempstead Lake dam,

The proposal includes restoring the Hempstead Lake dam, which is the only one on Long Island that the state Department of Environmental Conservation considers to be a high hazard. Credit: Steve Pfost

New York State will use $125 million in federal disaster money to rebuild a hazardous dam, restore wetlands, improve drainage and install other resiliency measures along the Mill River from Hempstead Lake State Park south to Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant.

Though still in a conceptual stage, the Living With the Bay project also will link communities along the river such as Rockville Centre and Oceanside through a series of bike paths, trails and road crossings.

Some areas — known as floodable riverfronts — will double as recreation spaces that also can retain water and store it in times of heavy rains. Improved drainage, underground cisterns and catch basins will also be installed, said Kris Van Orsdel, managing director of Infrastructure & Local Government Programs in the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, which is overseeing the project.

“It’s going to be a much more resilient, more safe area,” Van Orsdel said. “A green infrastructure, if it’s done correctly, is also a low operation and maintenance component.”

The project was one of six funded after superstorm Sandy in New York and New Jersey as part of a resiliency competition called Rebuild by Design. The winners receive a total of $930 million from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Other winning projects are on Staten Island, Manhattan and Hoboken, New Jersey.

Work on Long Island will be divided into three sections and spread over phases, with construction expected to begin in late 2020. The completion date is uncertain.

In the northern portion, the Hempstead Lake dam will be restored to prevent flooding of Sunrise Highway and nearby Hempstead communities.

The dam, which was originally part of a Brooklyn Waterworks aqueduct, is the only one on Long Island that the state Department of Environmental Conservation considers to be a high hazard, putting property and life and risk should it falter. Installing systems to collect debris is also planned.

“I think the most important aspect of this is the hardening of the infrastructure so that we are able to withstand future storms,” new Hempstead Town Supervisor Anthony J. Santino said. “You can’t stand in the way of Mother Nature [but] you can certainly make the community more resilient.”

Focused on cleaning the lake

Much of the project focuses on Hempstead Lake State Park, which features three ponds, basketball courts, biking and hiking trails, picnic areas, a carousel and bridle trails for horse back riding.

Albany officials in the state Office of Parks, Restoration and Historic Preservation, which oversees the park, did not return multiple calls for comment.

“The biggest thing we’re looking for is in and around the lake to be cleaned up,” said Alexander Jacobson, president of the New York Equestrian Center, which is near the park and rents horses out for people to ride the trails. “Any type of capital improvements and cleanup of the park, and a new filtration system that would clean up runoff and debris would be a positive improvement.”

In the middle portion of the project area, the state will work with municipalities on drainage improvements and installing check valves, which allow water to flow only in one direction and can stop tidal waters from backing up into the river. Underused waterfront property will be transformed into floodable parks and recreation areas.

“Most of the waterways are fenced off along the South Shore,” said Richard Schary, who is president and co-founder with his wife Lisa of Friends of Massapequa Preserve. “We definitely are in favor of trail access to the waterways.”

The focus in the southern section will be on coastal restoration south of Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant, which was knocked offline by a more than 9-foot wall of waves during Sandy. Details are not finalized but raising roads, installing sluice gates and restoring wetlands are on the table.

Strengthening connections

Lisa Schary supports the plan as long as it does not interfere with private property, create parking issues or involve destruction of trees. “If it can make the community a better place for everybody to enjoy, it’s certainly a good idea,” she said.

In addition to hardening structures and restoring natural habitats the project is also meant to foster a connection between neighbors, the community and the river corridor.

The theory is that if people feel more connected to a place and their neighbors, resiliency will follow. An education component will also be included and will focus on teaching about resilient waterfronts. “Social resiliency is something that is new to HUD but we’re completely embracing it on Long Island,” Van Orsdel said.

The Office of Storm Recovery is forming a citizens advisory committee to gather input.

An environmental review has not been conducted as the plan is still being finalized, said Barbara Brancaccio, a spokeswoman for the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery.

Some parts of the initial plan were not permissible, leading to revisions, but the state has worked with other municipal entities and “we believe we are on a path that the permitting can happen,” Van Orsdel said.

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