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Is a green solution turning into a boondoggle?

By Bob Harris

A couple of months ago green letters with green lines started appearing at the curbs of some houses in Fresh Meadows. It took weeks of inquiry for us to discover that these green letters meant the DEP wanted to build bioswales, or rain gardens, in this location.

No one was formerly advised that there was such a plan. Many civic leaders, including Vice President Elaine Young of the West Cunningham Park Civic Association, spent weeks finding out what those green letters mean.

Queens Civic Congress Vice Presidents Henry Euler and Tyler Cassell attended a meeting which state Sen. Tony Avella and Assemblyman Mike Simanowitz held for civic leaders in eastern Queens where officials from the DEP spoke and were questioned. Other legislators such as Assemblyman David Weprin, Councilmen Barry Grodenchik and Peter Koo and representatives of other elected officials attended.

Bioswales are depressed pits which can measure from 4 feet by 10 feet up to 5 feet by 20 feet. The ground is dug up and loosened and special soil and rocks are usually place at the surface with plants, grasses and trees added for decoration. A low metal fence is placed around the bioswale except on the gutter side. These are built so that rainwater can drain into the bioswale and not run into our basements, cause flooding or overwhelm our storm drains. They cost about $26,000 each to install.

Euler reported back to the QCC about the meeting with DEP Commissioner Vincent Sapienza and members of his staff. I received my own report from my wife Edna, who also attended this meeting. Euler reported that many homeowners were unhappy with the lack of information and wanted to “opt-out” of the project. There was concern about how people could get into and out of their cars with the bioswales right next to the curb especially if a child was being put into a car seat or an elderly person was involved. There were suggestions that homes with the bioswales in front of them receive a rebate on their water bills to make them more palatable.

People were concerned about who would maintain the rain gardens. The DEP said it would maintain them and not the Parks Department. People were worried that pedestrians might fall into the bioswales and sue the homeowner. Would dog walkers respect them? There was the suggestion that these things be placed on malls, in parks or other open areas and not in front of homes. A group of shopkeepers came to complain that the sidewalks in front of their If a bioswale was placed in front of a store , then the sidewalk would not be wide enough as required by the DOB.

Edna thought the DEP did not know what it was doing, especially about the entering and exiting from cars at curbs and the sidewalk width in front of stores. People complained that the DOB has not been enforcing the paving over of lawns so rainwater does not have enough lawns to drain into. One can see that many tree beds have paving stones in them, which if removed would free up more areas to absorb rainwater. Also, many tree pits become packed down and can’t absorb water and many are full of weeds. People just don’t trust the city to maintain the bioswales because they see how the city has failed to maintain the tree pits after the million trees were planted.

Questions thought up by the QCC and me were: Where would the $1.5 billion over the next 25 years come from to pay for these bioswales? Has the city planned for water and gas lines and the sprinkler heads which are at some curbs? How many of these things will be needed to alleviate the flooding problem? How will the city deal with sidewalks which are above curb level or curbs which are only an inch or so high? Are the bioswales far enough from homes to not contribute to basement flooding? How will shopkeepers or homeowners who just replaced sidewalks feel if a bioswale is placed there? Is this just a boondoggle?

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