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Nassau legislator's bill would require better promotion of county public land

Bill comes in response to Newsday series detailing how many sites purchased with  a $100M county environmental bond are inaccessible to the public.

A Newsday investigation found that Nassau's landmark Environmental Bonds Acts of 2004 and 2006 benefited political insiders, as well as wildlife and water quality. And while taxpayers continue to pay down the borrowing for the purchases, the level of public access for many of the sites was never realized. (Credit: Newsday Staff)

The Nassau County Legislature’s presiding officer filed a bill Thursday requiring that scores of acres of pristine land preserved by the county be better marked, promoted, and truly welcoming to visitors.

The action is in response to Newsday’s “Public Space/Private Benefit” series, published over the past week, which found that at many of the sites acquired with $100 million from the county’s landmark environmental bond acts of 2004 and 2006, public access has been an afterthought, or worse. Signage and parking are inconsistent, walking trails and other promised amenities weren’t installed, and in a few cases properties are largely or completely inaccessible.

Several of the purchases were made from people with ties to county politics, the property selection process, or both, the series found.

“I’m angry about it,” said Legis. Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park), of the lack of amenities, public awareness, and accessibility. “We’ve had plenty of time since we passed this, and it should have been done.”
The proposed law would more clearly mandate that all open space owned or operated by Nassau be “open and accessible to the public.” It specifies requiring signage and parking at all sites, identifying them on the county website and distributing written materials that provide directions on how to reach them — something now missing for several.

The county also would provide more detailed annual reports of its open space portfolio to lawmakers, including an assessment of whether new nature trails should be installed.

Nicolello leads the legislature’s 11-member majority, so passage of the bill is all but guaranteed. The administration of County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat, is reviewing the legislation but expressed general support for improving access at county preserves.

While some bond act advocates believed that simply preserving the land as a way to prevent development and protect water quality is sufficient, the conditions of many sites run counter to promises made by county officials when the purchases were made, primarily between 2006 and 2009.

In addition, the county in 2011 drew up a written plan to enhance access at the majority of the purchased properties, but funding issues and pushback from some environmentalists scuttled it, officials said.

“People dropped the ball,” Nicolello said. “They made commitments they didn’t fulfill.”

Nicolello noted one particular aspect of the Newsday report as irking him: cases in which little-promoted acquisitions essentially remained extensions of the sellers’ private property, after signage had either been damaged and never replaced, or taken down by area residents.

At one newly created preserve in Glen Cove, which was extended with property owned by a political appointee of the then-county executive, an Eagle Scout was responsible for the only significant improvements, some fencing and a parking area for one car.

At another new preserve in Oyster Bay Cove, the sellers — including major donors to the nonprofit that played a significant role in recommending which properties to buy — kept portions of their adjoining private estates, while the site went years without prominent signage promoting its existence.

“It’s ridiculous that all this wasn’t done and some people were treating county owned land as their backyards,” Nicolello said.

Karen Contino, a Curran spokeswoman, said in a statement that “the County Executive supports access to all open space. The administration also needs to examine the budget implications.”

The county estimated that its never-enacted 2011 open space access plan would have cost less than $300,000 to complete. That cost would likely be higher today, though the GOP majority didn’t immediately provide a proposed cost.

Nicolello said he wasn’t worried about a budget impact, noting that things like signage and increased promotional material are relatively inexpensive in context of a recently proposed $150 million county capital budget amendment

“It’s not a major lift for the county,” he said.

Legislative Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) said in a statement that his caucus would support the GOP bill, but said lawmakers would also propose ways to improve it.

“This is a necessary piece of legislation,” he said. “However, we would like to enhance the opportunities and bring this proposal to the next level to ensure our residents can maximize their enjoyment of Nassau County open space and parklands.”

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