Facing public anger about the way Nassau County has purchased and dealt with land bought to be preserved as open space for the public to use, County Legislature Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello last week said, “I’m angry about it,” and he introduced a bill.
But it’s not clear exactly why the New Hyde Park Republican, an original member of the legislature, is angry. Is it about whom the purchases rewarded? Or that land bought with $100 million in bonding, approved in 2004 and 2006, is not accessible for public use as promised? In either case, some of his vitriol ought to be directed in the mirror. And any remedy shouldn’t be rashly enacted.
A recent Newsday investigative series, “Public Space, Private Benefit,” showed that much of the property purchased for preservation by the county was owned by wealthy and politically connected people. That is, almost by definition, how ownership of undeveloped land in a place as expensive as Nassau works. But in some cases, politics clearly led to big purchases, as when the county bought insider Gary Melius’ Brooklyn Water Works for $6.2 million in 2012. Melius bought the land from the county in 1986 for $1.4 million, Nassau assessed its taxable value at about $2 million, and Melius’ efforts to develop it failed for 25 years.
Newsday’s editorial board railed against that purchase in 2012. Nicolello and every other county legislator voted for it. Nor does Nicolello remember a legislator ever voting against an acquisition under the program.
But on Monday, Nicolello said it seems that too much of the property was bought on the North Shore. That’s where the push for the preservation effort began, where many of those on the advisory committee and Tom Suozzi, the county executive at the time, lived. But there wasn’t much to buy anywhere else in the county.
Let’s not forget that in addition to the $100 million for purchases, another $50 million went to parks and storm-water improvements and brownfield remediation, helping the central and southern portions of the county far more and balancing the benefits countywide.
The money is long gone. In the wake of the Newsday series, some residents are angry that so much of the purchased land that residents were promised they would be able to use is unmarked or inaccessible. That’s a legitimate gripe. The process of how parcels were selected and what their ultimate use would be were too murky.
Nicolello’s bill would mandate that all open space owned by the county be “open and accessible to the public” and have signage, parking and directions widely available. That’s a mistake. The main purpose of preserving open space in a place like Nassau is environmental and atmospheric. The parcels preserved by the county ought to be made accessible and accommodating to the public piece by piece after each is evaluated. Which ones are too expensive to maintain, too inaccessible or too dangerous? Which might have no real public utility? This is not a region that lacks parks or recreational space. And the legislature must fund the services for parcels people use.
As Newsday showed, Nassau’s acquisition of open spaces was flawed. It’s important to make sure the remedy isn’t. — The editorial board