BY CHERYL SLAVIN
Just as the New City Library Board prepares for the transition to a new set of trustees, carrying with it the prospect of restored cooperation among its members, a new issue involving the plans of developer Eric Bergstol to build senior housing on property adjacent to the library has required the Board’s immediate attention.
At a December 3 special meeting, Bergstol presented his plans along with his interest in obtaining an easement on library property to construct adequate drainage for the project. Many Board members came away from the presentation with more questions than answers about the development; they also questioned the manner in which they had received short notice of the meeting, and the failure of the Board president to inform all trustees months ago about the project.
According to Board members Jeff Greenberg, Victor Berger and Ed Kallen, the December 3 special meeting was called with very little notice or explanation. Moreover, when they inquired of business manager Jim Collins about the subject of the meeting, they only received vague answers.
“We were blindsided,” Berger states. “Until the meeting started, neither we nor members of the public who attended really knew what it was about, and it was the first time that I learned about Bergstol’s intention to build the senior housing and his interest in an easement from the library.”
Yet, according to Collins, Board President Tom Ninan had known of Bergstol’s intentions to develop the property, adjacent to the library’s lower parking lot, at least as far back as late September or early October. Ninan first notified Collins and director Mitch Freedman about the prospective development around that time, and Collins received an engineer’s report dated October 17, 2013, prepared by Maser Consulting, which reviewed an earlier floodplain report prepared by Bergstol’s engineer, Brooker Engineering. Collins states that he was not involved with any communication between Ninan and the rest of the Board, and that even when the special meeting was called he did not know who knew or didn’t know about the plans.
At the meeting the Board members learned that Bergstol needed the easement in order to accommodate the additional flood mitigation necessitated by the recently finalized FEMA flood maps for the 100 year Demarest Kill flood plain. Although the area had been zoned for active adult residence for at least six or seven years, and there had been earlier proposals to develop the property, Bergstol now needed to alter his plans to provide for additional drainage retention in keeping with the new maps. For Bergstol, the library property directly abutting the proposed area of construction presented the best place to do so.
The Board members also learned for the first time about the October report prepared by Maser Consulting. Berger, Kallen and Greenberg all questioned the impartiality of the report since, to their knowledge, it had been prepared and paid for by the developer. They also objected, according to Berger, to having not been “kept in the dark” about the plans, and demanded copies of the report immediately.
The report, a copy of which was provided to the Rockland County Times, does state that the proposed improvements to the Demarest Kill at Squadron Boulevard “should not impact the New City Free Library significantly,” but it also goes on to say that the 100 foot cut and consequent re-grading to the rear of the property “may result in a loss of flexibility for future expansions or modifications.” For this reason alone, several trustees believe, the Board must take more time to examine all of the ramifications of granting the easement.
Newly elected board members David Zuckerberg and Jeff Sasson also attended the meeting. Sasson in particular had a more comprehensive knowledge about the flood plain issues as he lives in the Demarest Kill area and had previously been active in pressing the town and the developer seven years ago to halt construction until a proper flood plan for the entire area was produced. He and Zuckerberg agree that before any final decision is made more information is needed on such issues as the library’s ultimate liability for structures on the easement, whether the structures would be environmentally sound, to what extent the town will maintain the structures, as well as the actual value of the property itself. At the meeting Bergstol mentioned the sum of $50,000, but no one has really investigated whether that represents the fair value of the property.
At the developer’s invitation, Joe Simoes, Director of the Clarkstown Planning Board, and Dennis Letson of the town Department of Environmental Control, also attended in order to answer any questions about the flood maps or drainage needs of the Squadron Boulevard area. Simoes explained, both at the meeting and later to the Rockland County Times, that building the retention area on the library property would be a viable situation to the continuing flooding in the area. It would benefit not only the library and the new construction, but also the existing senior complex on Sqaudron Boulevard as well as the commercial properties.
Members of the New City Library Watch, as well as Berger, Greenberg and Sasson, however, questioned the impartiality of the Town’s endorsement, since Clarkstown would reap a huge financial benefit from the construction of the drainage by Bergstol. If the developer pays for the improvement, the Town would not have to, even though, as even the officials admitted, it is ultimately Clarkstown’s responsibility to address the issue of mitigation.