In the latest phase of a 12-year battle, residents and environmental advocates have taken the city and state to court to challenge the siting of a yard-waste compost facility in Spring Creek Park, East New York.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) granted the city’s Department of Sanitation a permit to operate the facility in city parkland last year. Residents Cuyler Young and Sebastian De Jesus and the conservation organization NY/NJ Baykeeper are suing to block the operation, alleging the city violated the Public Trust Doctrine by taking away 20 acres of parkland for a non-park use without the approval of the state legislature. The lawsuit is also challenging the DEC for making unlawful decisions that lead to issuing the permit.
The facility would take in leaves as well as smaller quantities of logs, wood chips, grass, horse manure and other yard waste collected from homes and parks in Brooklyn and Queens.
The plaintiffs in the case, which was argued at Brooklyn Supreme Court on June 28, say that something constitutes a park-use only when it directly enhances the experience of users in a particular park.
But the city contends that the facility does constitute a “parks use” because compost produced by the facility would go mainly to the parks.
What emerges from the courtroom is a picture of two public needs in conflict: the need for public parkland in neglected East New York, and the city’s need to reform—at a low cost—its solid waste management system.
The cost of getting green
In response to growing opposition to incineration and landfills, New York City undertook major changes to its waste management system in the 80s and 90s, shutting down all the city’s incinerators, instituting mandatory recycling laws and starting a yard-waste collection program to convert residential yard waste into compost.
The yard-waste program began in Staten Island, serviced by a compost facility at Fresh Kills. The program then expanded to the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. According to a 2001 Sanitation report, the Sanitation and Parks departments agreed in 1997 that in exchange for land in city parks for its compost facilities, Sanitation would give the compost back to the city parks.
Sanitation established a facility in the Bronx’s Ferry Point Park but later closed the site when the city decided to locate a city golf course there. It also opened new facilities in Soundview Park in the Bronx, Idlewild Park in Queens, Canarsie Park in Brooklyn and Spring Creek. The Idlewild and Canarsie sites were closed in 2005 amid community opposition and the Soundview site has been unpopular among neighbors.
Due to budget cuts, the leaf and yard waste collection program has been “suspended until further notice,” says Sanitation’s website, but the Spring Creek facility could begin operating once Sanitation completes its permit requirements and restores the collection program.
Battle over a permit
The Spring Creek compost facility is the first to be contested in court.
When Sanitation opened it in 2001, it began operating—as it had in Soundview and Canarsie—without community notification and without a legal permit, says Daniel Estrin, the attorney representing the plaintiffs.
Sanitation completed a permit application to the DEC in 2002 and was awarded a draft permit. Opponents fought the permit in DEC administrative courts.
In 2009, DEC Administrative Law Judge Du Bois recommended that DEC not award a final permit, expressing concern that the facility would have negative impacts on the surrounding community and was inconsistent with New York City’s Waterfront Revitalization Program, which seeks to expand waterfront access. The DEC Commissioner’s office disagreed with Du Bois’s analysis and granted the permit in 2012.
The Spring Creek site was chosen for its convenient location on the border of Brooklyn and Queens and for its proximity to yard waste pick-up and compost drop-off locations, said Kathy Dawkins of Sanitation in an e-mail to City Limits.
“It is important to note that the Parks Department sites that Sanitation has used for its composting operations do not constitute ‘parks’ in the popular sense of the word,” explained the 2001 Sanitation report. “Rather they compromise large, vacant, often undesirable tracts of land, which have been placed under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department for potential rehabilitation at an unspecified, future date. These sites are generally former landfills overgrown with invasive plant species, where illegal dumping often occurs.”
Part of the debate centers on whether Spring Creek Park really fits that description.
Is it parkland?
Spring Creek Park borders Jamaica Bay, and in the late 1800s was a vacation retreat with a marina and numerous hotels. After the area declined due to industrial pollution, the city took the land by condemnation in 1938 and built the Belt Parkway, according to the Parks Department website.
Ronald Dillon, president of the New Lots Concerned Homeowners Association, which fought against the compost facility in DEC hearings, said that the city took the land with the intention of building parkland and a seaport, but instead the area became the site of a dump.
Parts of today’s park were constructed on top of the dump, and other parts remain uncultivated marshland.
Dillon sees the city’s actions as part of a long pattern of neighborhood neglect. In recent years, the park has also become home to a water pollution control plant, several scavenger waste pits (where sludge is pumped underground) and a combined sewer overflow system.
“It’s a park in the outer boroughs that they don’t care about,” says Dillon.
“New Lots doesn’t have waterfront access. This would be a perfect waterfront access place.”
Attorney Kathleen Schmid, representing the city, argued that the conditions of the park make it suitable for a compost facility. Spring Creek was “never meant to be a recreational park in the way that Prospect Park was,” she said, adding that the compost facility will not be built in the area dedicated to wildlife preservation, but above the ash dump, which she said is unfit for cultivation.
The city argues that under the plaintiffs' narrow definition of “parks use,” all kinds of maintenance and infrastructure facilities that the agency depends on could be considered non-park uses.
But Estrin, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, says that the portion of the park that the city has fenced off for the facility was one of the few parts of solid ground where residents could walk their dogs, bike and visit the water.
“Park land is held in trust by use for the public, not for the Parks department,” Nicole Sasaki, a legal intern at PACE Environmental Law Clinic working with Estrin, told the judge. “We ask that you order public access be restored to the city” unless the non-park use is approved by the state legislature, she said.
Waste that needs a home
During last month's proceedings, Judge Bernard Graham asked the people suing to stop the Spring Creek facility where they thought the city should locate the compost facility. Sasaki said that the city could operate small compost files in parks throughout the city, but Schmid retorted that small compost piles would not meet the city’s need and that it was hard to come by vacant, inexpensive space in the city.
As the city attempts to expand composting system and meet goals to reduce the waste sent to landfills 75 percent by 2030, it is repeatedly running up against issues of space and funds.
Christine Datz-Romero, executive director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center and a compost advocate, does not believe the city’s compost facilities alienate parkland, but says the city should have sought more input from Spring Creek residents during the planning stages.
“Has the Sanitation Department been the smartest in terms of doing outreach about the siting of this facility and really engaging community members and stakeholders about it?” she says. “No.”
Separate from the yard-waste composting program is a food-waste composting initiative that has begun on a pilot basis in Staten Island; the administration wants to expand the voluntary pilot and eventually make it mandatory citywide.
But Datz-Romero says Sanitation has yet to come up with good locations for facilities to handle that waste.
“We need the infrastructure before we start collection,” she says.