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State holds hearings on plan to fell trees from dams in Hempstead Lake State Park

The Citizens Advisory Committee, comprised of environmental, civic, educational and other experts, said an environmental impact study is critical and it warned that clearing trees could "threaten" the dams' integrity.

Hempstead Lake State Park would lose 2,555 trees under a plan the state says will shield the densely developed downstream area from floods but critics say could imperil the most crucial dam and eradicate nature from the park. (Credit: Newsday / Yeong-Ung Yang)

Hempstead Lake State Park would lose 2,555 trees under a plan the state says will shield the densely developed downstream area from floods but critics say could imperil the dams and eradicate nature from the park.

New York State, in an environmental assessment, said its $35 million plan to fix the park’s dams to hold more storm water and control its release “will not result in a significant impact on the quality of the human environment.” That clears the way for the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery to advance its Oct. 5 plan without a more thorough environmental impact statement, officials said.

However, the Citizens Advisory Committee, comprised of environmental, civic, educational and other experts, said an environmental impact study is critical. It warned that clearing trees could “threaten” the dams’ integrity, citing a 1981 Army Corps of Engineers report that said such trees should not be removed.

Two public hearings are planned for Wednesday: 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Rockville Centre Public Library 221 N. Village Ave., Rockville Centre; and 6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m. at the Lynbrook Public Library 56 Eldert St., Lynbrook.

The Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation said the trees growing in the dams are hazards. “What we do know is that the trees are compromising the integrity of the dam,” spokesman Randy Simons said by email. After their removal, “we will be studying the dam and rehabilitating the dam.”

“A majority of the remaining trees and shrubs are either invasive or dead and are being removed to improve and strengthen storm resiliency, storm water management and overall health of the environment,” Simons said. “The acreage removal of these trees equals one percent of the 521 acre park.”

Some wetlands would be restored, under the state’s plan. Trails would be added, along with a greenway, a kayak launch for the disabled, links to the neighborhoods, an observation pavilion, and an 8,000-square feet environmental education center, under the plan.

But park lovers and environmentalists decried clearing so much of the forest as both unnecessary and all too likely to harm wildlife habitat for a multitude of creatures including northern long-eared bats and 27 species of birds, all federally threatened, including bald eagles.

“We think it deserves a more in-depth study,” said Jim Brown, conservation co-chairperson, South Shore Audubon Society. The Audubon chapter’s statement said: “There is no guarantee that the new wetlands will provide suitable habitat” and the new trails were a “gratuitous destruction of habitat,” that “defeats the purpose of increasing access to nature by removing nature from the equation.”

The 521-acre park, bisected by the Southern State Parkway, is “one of the largest green spaces in a highly urbanized area,” the report said. The state report says Hempstead Lake Dam is the Island’s only “high hazard” dam and its collapse could cause “widespread serious and substantial damage or loss of life.”

The plan calls for felling about 1,300 trees that have grown in and around the dams, gatehouses and bridges and 1,200 trees in the Northeast and Northwest ponds.

Freshwater Hempstead Lake, Nassau’s largest, once supplied 19th century Brooklyn with drinking water. Now it is starved of oxygen and polluted by storm water with “high bacteria levels,” heavy metals, debris and “floatables,” such as bottles, the state report said.

To improve water quality, floatable “catchers” would be installed and as much as 70 percent of the sediment — “associated oils, metals and hydrocarbons” — would be removed with temporary holding ponds, the state plan said.

The plan is part of the Living With the Bay Project and Resiliency Strategy, which was awarded $125 million by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Some critics saw few if any benefits. The Citizens Advisory Committee said: “The construction of a multimillion-dollar Environmental Education and Resiliency Center that does nothing to immediately improve water quality or address flooding concerns if another storm like superstorm Sandy should hit the area.“

Litter, along with microplastics and other toxins, should be captured upstream, it said: “It is insanity to spend taxpayers’ money to clean up what should be prevented at its source.”

There is a Monday Oct. 22 deadline for public comments, which can be sent to: the Governorʼs Office of Storm Recovery, 25 Beaver St., Fifth Floor, New York, NY 10004.

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