While environmentalists pursue legal action to stop the construction of a 175-acre golf course on the former municipal landfill at Ferry Point Park in the Bronx, city officials are trying to interest golf officials in making the Jack Nicklaus-designed course a PGA tournament site, the Daily News reported recently.
Mayor Rudy Guiliani, an avid golfer, has been talking up the idea of a tournament-level course at Ferry Point, and course developer Pierre Gagne recently met with officials from the PGA tour. There has even been discussion of annexing adjacent parkland to expand the course to 27 holes.
Meanwhile, environmental groups and residents of a nearby housing project, the Throggs Neck Houses, say the city went ahead with the project without thoroughly investigating the potential environmental problems of the site. Ferry Point was closed in the 1960s before laws regulating landfills were passed. The groups say the old dump contains toxic chemicals and explosive and possibly contaminated methane gas, and that the golf course construction is increasing residents' exposure to these hazards.
The mostly black and Hispanic residents of the housing project are also upset that the golf course is being walled off on their side of the park, preventing access to a 19.5-acre public waterfront park that is also part of the golf course development.
A lawsuit by the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and the New York Public Interest Research Group to require a full environmental impact statement for the project was dismissed when the judge ruled that the suit did not meet the statute of limitations. The groups plan to appeal.
In a move to nullify another lawsuit filed by environmentalists and residents, the City Franchise and Concession Review Committee recently voted to approve, retroactively, a 35-year concession for the development company, Ferry Point Partners. City regulations require the unanimous vote of the committee for a concession contract longer than the usual 20 years. The second lawsuit charges that the Parks department had signed the contract and allowed construction to begin without getting this approval.
The Francise and Concession Review Committee consists of mayoral appointees except for the presidents of the affected boroughs and the city comptroller. Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who had previously refused to register the project, and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer voted with the mayors' appointees to make the approval unanimous. Calling the vote a "back-room deal," Leslie Lowe, executive director of the Environmental Justice Alliance, said, "What is particularly disgraceful about what Hevesi has done is that this is a terrible deal for the city." She noted that the city's contract indemnifies the developer from lawsuits for environmental problems, even if the developer has made it worse. She said, "If the people of Throggs Neck sue, the taxpayers pay." Calls to Hevesi's office for comment were not returned.
Ferrer's press secretary, John Melia, said that the borough president voted to approve the concession "with reservations," entering a statement into the record urging Ferry Point Partners and the state Department of Environmental Conservation to "fully and completely investigate the potential environmental and public health impacts" of the plan. "The environmental concerns are valid and the borough president wants to see that they addressed properly," Melia said. "This project, and any project of large scale, is going to cause controversy. Do you not go forward after two decades of nothing getting done or do you make a decision when someone wants to invest a lot of money and create recreation for the people of the Bronx?"
Melia also insisted that the side of the park next to the housing project will be open. "The borough president was very sensitive to charges of exclusion. Of all people in the world he is not going to let that happen. The people of Throggs Neck Houses will have their concerns addressed and have access to the park just as any other person who wants to use it will."
Additional environmental concerns have surfaced as construction has proceeded. To cover the landfill and shape the contours of the golf course, the developer is trucking in 1 million cubic yards of construction and demolition debris. Lowe compares the trash layer underneath to a sponge filled with methane gas produced by decomposing garbage. She says the heavy fill is squeezing the methane out of the sponge toward the residential areas. In February, monitoring of test wells showed that methane levels were too high, and the developer was required to build a five-block-long gravel-filled trench to vent the gas before it accumulates underground at explosive levels. The trench is right next to a community park used by residents of the housing project. "They have not tested what is coming out of that venting trench," Lowe said.
There have also been reports that the developer is using possibly contaminated fill. The state permit granted to the developer allows only certain types of construction and demolition debris. Residents have reported finding asphalt grindings, which are not allowed, and in fact, the developer has applied for a waiver to allow the use of asphalt.
Tom Kunkel, Special Assistant at the Region 2 office of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said the agency has not yet dealt with the developer's request to allow asphalt. He said, "The developer has been following the permit, has been very agreeable so far with the trench and with monitoring the issues. We have been in constant contact with them since the beginning of the permit."
Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.