Note: Protectors' President Cliff Hagen sent this opinion piece to the Staten Island Advance. It was released on Earth Day, April 22, 2021, to remind and inform Staten Islanders that Protectors of Pine Oak Woods has had a long involvement in the efforts to prevent the loss of the Graniteville Wetlands.
There is a growing chorus of newly engaged people calling out against development of the Graniteville Wetlands. These people are meeting and sharing and planning to battle the coming of BJ’s Wholesale. They are focused on environmental justice, on climate change and on the economic impact of another big box store.
The effort to preserve the Graniteville Wetlands is older than many of the passionate activists leading the most recent charge against development on that private property. Before the technological wonders of the cell phone and the immediacy of social media, Protectors of Pine Oak Woods worked diligently to foster professional relationships with a network of elected officials, agency directors and staffers at all levels of government. Such relationships offered access and opportunity to speak directly with decision makers. Without the fanfare of Facebook and the instant dissemination of information Protectors relied on snail mail and phone calls to conduct campaigns of persuasion. The success of Protectors is evident across the island with preserved open-space in nearly every community.
Long ago, soon after the passage of federal and state wetland law in the 1980s, the brothers Alpert sought an allowance to develop their property, the Graniteville Wetlands. They had purchased the property prior to the Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) final delineation of freshwater wetlands. Having speculated on developable property, only to have that property mapped as freshwater wetlands, the Alpert brothers, in December 1987, sought relief under a hardship provision in the wetlands law.
In opposition to possible development of these newly mapped wetlands, Protectors of Pine Oak Woods strongly urged the DEC to deny the hardship claims put forth by the Alperts. Thankfully, the DEC did contest the appeal and the claim of hardship. The issue remained buried in court proceedings for years.
In 2011, newly elected Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed the vice president of the Economic Development Corporation as director of Region 2 (NYC) for the DEC. The following year the DEC reversed course on more than twenty years of litigation and agreed in court to allow economic development to take place at the property in question. The Alpert brothers and the DEC signed a Final Stipulation in court which allowed for development as well as the preservation of approximately ten acres of freshwater wetlands on their private property. The Final Stipulation, a legally binding agreement between the owners and the DEC, offered specific planning guidelines and determined which wetlands were to be preserved.
When the coming of BJ’s Wholesale was announced at Community Board 1, April 2015, folks were rightly concerned with the size and scope of the environmental impact of such development within a sensitive habitat. Protectors of Pine Oak Woods continued to call upon the DEC to deny the permit requests. Unfortunately, at this point in the decades long process the only recourse of action was to counter the draft Environmental Impact Statement with fact. We wrote and shared factual comments about the devastating effects that development was sure to have upon the wetlands, the wildlife and the surrounding community. But, since the planned development adhered to the guidelines within the Final Stipulation, the DEC issued the necessary permits.
Protectors of Pine Oak Woods is encouraged for the future of Staten Island. This next generation of civic leaders is concerned for the health of our community and they know a healthy community begins with safe parks and playgrounds. These activists, galvanized by a desire to save the Graniteville Wetlands, share the passion for preservation which has driven the success of Protectors of Pine Oak Woods for nearly fifty years. Notwithstanding, navigating the bureaucracy of preservation is never as exciting as the petitions and protests.
Protectors has come to learn that such passion often better serves the less attractive, yet more achievable efforts, like the expansion of the Serpentine Arts and Nature Commons, the Seaside Wildlife Nature Park and the Arden Heights Woods. Our work on the recent environmental catastrophe at Mariner’s Marsh or the uncompleted purchase of the Goodhue Woods could benefit from the strength of Staten Island environmentalists this Earth Day and every day.
Protectors of Pine Oak Woods asks our neighbors who are fired up about the Graniteville Wetlands to raise their voice and begin calling on our elected officials to expand our neighborhood parks, to increase funding for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and to add their energy to the work of Protectors of Pine Oak Woods at Arden Heights Woods, Seaside Wildlife Nature Park and the Serpentine Arts and Nature Commons.