BY JAMES FARRELL
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) stood with several civic organizations, community members and Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz (D-Flushing) on Feb. 17 to call on the Department of Environmental Protection to allow homeowners to opt-out of the agency’s bioswale program.
Bioswales, or rain gardens, are part of DEP’s “Green Infrastructure Project.” These densely planted green spaces are installed along city sidewalks to absorb storm water in order to reduce flooding and keep untreated water from polluting the city’s waterways. In northeast Queens, residents have voiced concerns that bioswales could become a hassle on homeowners—especially if the city fails to maintain them. Others worry that bioswales could negatively impact parking or attract mosquitoes.
DEP is under a consent order with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to reduce contaminants caused by untreated storm water.
Avella has maintained that homeowners should have the option to reject unwanted bioswales. He reiterated that belief during the Friday press conference in front of houses along 36th Avenue in Bayside—where he first addressed the issue in July.
“Nobody knows their block better than the people who live there,” said Avella. “Unfortunately, the city and the Department of Environmental Protection moved ahead with this project with almost no community communication, certainly with no community involvement.”
Simanowitz argued that, despite assurances from DEP, some bioswales in Forest Hills commercial districts have accumulated garbage and are “filthy.” He proposed a tax incentive program for homeowners who choose to have a bioswale.
On the Tuesday before the press conference, DEP Commissioner Vincent Sapienza sent a letter to northeast Queens community boards, elected officials and civic associations, reiterating DEP’s commitment to maintaining the bioswales.
Sapienza also announced that DEP will not offer a full opt-out, but has worked with its engineers to develop different bioswale options. Homeowners can now choose a “green strip” bioswale, which ostensibly looks like a normal strip of grass, or a “porous sidewalk,” which looks like existing concrete sidewalks. These options remove the short fence that surrounds the traditional bioswales. Additionally, disabled residents will be able to fully opt-out, due to concerns that bioswales could pose an obstacle.
At the press conference, Simanowitz briefly acknowledged the letter, calling it a “step in the right direction,” but maintaining that homeowners should have a choice.
Avella, in an interview with the Queens Tribune, agreed that the concessions were “a step in the right direction,” particularly with the option to remove the fences, but reiterated that residents should have a full choice, even if the bioswale were just a patch of grass or concrete.
“Any time you’re doing something in front of their home and you don’t give them a right to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ that’s dictatorial,” he said.
He added that residents have complained that their sidewalks were damaged in the process of installing the bioswales, particularly during the process of soil testing to determine the viability of prospective sites. DEP had previously agreed to stop constructing new bioswales in northeast Queens until it could address residents’ concerns, but was allowed to continue testing. Recently, after seeing that the testing involved trucks and heavy machinery that tore up the ground, Avella called for that process to be included in the opt-out.
Bob Friedrich, president of the Glen Oaks Village Co-Op, attended the press conference and argued that an opt-out program might be more successful than DEP expects.
“The reality is, probably, most people would accept it,” he said.
According to Avella’s office, 80 residents have signed up to be on a potential opt-out list, organized by Avella, and 90 have signed a petition for the creation of an opt-out program.
Kathryn Cervino, of the College Point Civic Association and Coastal Preservation Network, a College Point-based environmental group, told the Queens Tribune that she supports the bioswale program, but she believes homeowners will bear the brunt of maintenance and should be allowed to opt-out.
“For me, as an environmentalist, I would probably say, ‘yes, bring it on,’” she said.
Bayside resident Wilson Ng said he hopes to opt-out of the bioswale that is being considered on his block, as evidenced by green markings on the sidewalk.
“There’s always risks versus benefits,” he said. “To me, there’s more risk doing this than benefit for us.”
Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400 x127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @farrellj329.