Thursday, July 9, 2009

Did Parks Rig Reservoir Survey? by Michael Lanza - Queens Chronicle

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The skewed results of a public survey presented last Tuesday is leading many Ridgewood Reservoir advocates to ask: is the Parks Department stuffing the ballot box?

Parks’ announcement of the results of a 253-person survey — which indicated a strong preference for replacing the reservoir basins with active recreational facilities — came as the city agency simultaneously presented data from public hearings showing overwhelming community support for preserving the site in its natural state.

The sudden shift in support indicated by the survey sparked serious questions and outlandish charges among area preservationists.

“Parks used people that Parks felt were going to give them the answers that they wanted,” said Steven Fiedler, a Community Board 5 member and reservoir preservation advocate.

But a recent disclosure by the Parks Department suggests that allegations refuting the poll’s integrity may have merit.

Three out of four local groups enlisted to help distribute the survey — the Cypress Hills Local Development Corp., Brooklyn East Youth Sports and Recreation and East Brooklyn Congregations — are vocal advocates for replacing the basins with ballfields.

The fourth group, the George J. Walker Community Coalition, did not have a confirmed position as of press time.

At the center of the controversial survey is Bishop David Benke, the leader of East Brooklyn Congregations and a board member on the Cypress Hills Local Development Corp.

“Anybody with Benke is gonna go with ballfields,” Fiedler said.

Benke has been among the most vocal advocates for ballfields — lobbying the City Council with a public presentation at City Hall earlier this year.

Representing his parish in Bushwick, the Lutheran minister argued that Highland Park is simply too far a trek for his followers. Artificial and natural barriers are forcing Bushwick residents around the reservoir to access Highland Park, which they say is already too crowded and poorly maintained. He argued that the third basin is filled with invasive plant species and that eight of the 51 acres at the reservoir could be set aside for community baseball fields.

“That 8 acres does not really need to be a nature reserve, there’s nothing in there that needs to be preserved,” Benke said “Let’s use that for some sort of active use.”

But even he acknowledged that Parks’ decision to solicit their groups undermined the survey’s integrity.

“They said, ‘we need some people to hand out these surveys,’” Benke said. “You could make your case. You could say there are questions about the validity of a survey handed out by people who have already taken a position.”

The minister — confident that another survey would show similar results — said he would support a new survey distributed by an independent group.

Parks officials did not respond to allegations of bias within the survey.

The reservoir’s declining condition has become the center of a battle between preservationists and developers in recent years.

City Comptroller Bill Thompson shot down proposals by Mayor Mike Bloomberg to convert the reservoir into a sports field last summer, citing the ecological importance of the space.

“This plan flies in the face of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s widely hailed environmental blueprint, which bemoans the loss of the city’s natural areas,” Thompson wrote, protesting the plan. “The Parks Department’s own scientific consultants have warned against disturbing the reservoir, an area they call ‘highly significant for the biodiversity of New York City and the region.’”

Parks recently announced plans to slash development funds for the reservoir in its revised capital budget — cutting funds for Ridgewood Reservoir and Highland Park by more than half — from $48.8 million to $19.8 million. Approximately $7.7 million already allocated during phase one to restore lights and fencing around the reservoir will not be influenced by the cuts.

The cut was a mixed blessing for those who opposed razing the reservoir site to create ballfields — casting doubt on the most expensive of the propositions.

Three initial plans to develop the site included preserving the site as a natural habitat, filling in the reservoir basins and replacing them with baseball and soccer fields and a hybrid plan where only one of three basins — the largest one — would be converted into a recreational sporting area.

The reservoir, located on the border of Brooklyn and Queens, was created in 1848 to provide drinking water to Brooklyn. But it was converted to a back-up in 1959 and finally taken off-line in 1989. The site is now a natural haven for plants, turtles, fish, frogs and more than 137 bird species —including eight rare species on the National Audubon Society’s “Watch List.”