BY JAMES FARRELL
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) joined a large number of civic activists in Bayside on Aug. 14 in the latest of several rallies opposing the city’s bioswale program since the program first began last year.
Bioswales are absorbent patches of ground, often taking the form of a fenced-in garden in the sidewalk, that collect rain water during heavy storms in order to reduce impact on the city’s sewage infrastructure. During heavy rainfall, some sewage treatment plants often overflow into local waterways with both excess rainwater and untreated sewage, in what are called Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) events. The City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is working to reduce CSOs, in part by creating “green infrastructure” such as bioswales, as per state regulations.
But many northeast Queens residents have pushed back against the program, arguing that, while the structures are being built on public sidewalks, they could impact private homes adjacent to the bioswale locations. They argue that the bioswales could pose hazards and inconvenience, and that the city will not adequately maintain the gardens—leaving the responsibility on the homeowners. Avella has led the charge, holding several events pushing for an opt-out program that would allow homeowners to reject bioswales built in front of their properties. But at the Aug. 14 rally, Avella announced that the DEP had officially denied the full opt-out.
The DEP has made some accommodations—individuals with handicap placards may opt out of the program, for instance. And homeowners may now choose between the traditional bioswale with fencing, a patch of absorbent grass and a “porous” sidewalk that looks like normal concrete. Additionally, homeowners with sprinkler systems can opt out of the program.
“But it’s still not enough,” he said, a crowd of nearly 50 surrounding him. “What has to be done is to allow people to opt out. And I continue to say to the city: the small percentage of people that will opt out will not affect the viability of the program, because there are a lot of people who are concerned about the environment who will want to have this.”
Avella also announced that the DEP would begin constructing bioswales in the district. Previously, the agency had promised to hold off construction until residents’ concerns were met.
“I told them, well you’re going to have a fight on your hands because we’re not going to let this go,” he said.
DEP Spokesman Edward Timbers told the Queens Tribune that DEP is required, under a judicial Consent Order by New York State, to build a certain amount of bioswales. Not meeting those requirements could lead to New York State fines that could trickle down to residents, Timbers contended. He reiterated that there would be no full opt out.
“Curbside rain gardens are an important part of DEP infrastructure—much like a fire hydrant or catch basin—which are installed on public property where they meet citing criteria and will reduce flooding and improve the health of local waterways,” Timbers said.
Fresh Meadows resident Peter Kaufman, the president and Chief Technology Officer of Digital Direct IR, an analysis of bioswales with Dr. N.M. Rivera, PhD, the former chairman of Physics, Materials Science and Interdisciplinary Science Department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Kaufman presented a series of slides that outlined concerns about the program—that pesticides and other contaminants in rain water seeping into bioswales could reach the city’s aquifers, or that water from the bioswales could undermine the structure of the clay in the ground below—potentially causing sinkholes or interfering with utilities.
“Spend the billion dollars and build a waste treatment plant,” he said.
Timbers disputed those concerns. There is extensive engineering analysis at all proposed bioswale locations, he said, and only locations that meet certain criteria are selected. Additionally, the location must be approved by the Department of Transportation and utility companies, and work is also coordinated with the Department of Parks and Recreation—ensuring, Timbers argued, that problems such as sinkholes or utilities will not surface. He added that all DEP design standards comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and that there are multiple steps taken to ensure that groundwater is not contaminated.
But for Avella, the key argument is that homeowners should have the right to choose.
“We don’t like being told what to do in front of our own property,” Avella said. “Even though the city may own this, we pay some of the highest property taxes in the country. All we want is some service and the right to be in our home safe and sound.”
Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400 x 127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @farrellj329.