By LYNN CAPUANO
Many Americans are concerned about the ongoing undermining of our democracy by people in government and by fellow citizens.
Whether it’s maligning people for speaking out against police brutality and painting them incorrectly as “anti-law enforcement” or establishing barriers and hurdles to voting through legislation, there are all too many examples of people trying to keep other people from exercising their free speech rights because they don’t like what is being said.
Too often it’s not even really about not liking what’s being said; it’s more about creating an us vs. them situation in the pursuit of power. It would be more effective, and more democratic, to hear each other, and find common ground to build on for the common good.
This silencing of others is also happening in our community right now.
A group of our neighbors is speaking out against a request by a developer to place a large amount of fill on a residential housing building site located on Leeds Pond in the Village of Plandome Manor.
At a recent Board of Zoning Appeals meeting, at least three well-respected scientists and landscape professionals spoke in favor of denying the developer’s application.
They based their recommendations on their own analysis and conclusions regarding the damage to Leeds Pond that would be caused by the fill and its runoff. Hundreds have signed a petition and others have submitted public comments opposing the application because of the harm the fill would have on the pond.
In response to the opposition, the mayor of Plandome Manor sent a letter to her constituents, accusing the opposition of providing false information, in a flyer distributed by Save Leeds Pond, a group formed to organize the opposition.
The mayor wrote, “[i]t appears that inaccurate and misleading information is being disseminated to the residents of Plandome Manor and the Town of North Hempstead by an anonymous village resident through a flyer and petition titled “Save Leeds Pond.”
I would like to take this opportunity to dispel any misconceptions surrounding the matter at hand.”
The letter proceeds, “[t]he flyer and petition mention a Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) application that allegedly affects Leeds Pond. I want to assure you that the information presented in the flyer is entirely incorrect. The BZA application pertains solely to the amount of fill placed on a piece of property. There is no work being proposed that affects Leeds Pond whatsoever.”
The mayor’s assertion that “no work being proposed . . . affects Leeds Pond whatsoever” fully disregards the testimony of multiple experts to the contrary and has no factual basis.
There is work requiring fill and the fill will affect Leeds Pond. Therefore, there is work that affects Leeds Pond. The mayor’s letter directs residents to disregard what the opposition is saying on the mayor’s say-so, without any justification other than the Mayor said it.
In her letter, the mayor highlights that the state Department of Environmental Conservation approved a permit for the construction project as proof that the current request to place fill on the site is not problematic.
As she writes, “it is essential to note that the building project in progress has received full approval from the [DEC]. The DEC, being an authoritative regulatory body on wetlands like Leeds Pond, has evaluated and granted their consent for the project, ensuring compliance with all relevant state and village codes. All necessary precautions and measures have been taken to adhere to the guidelines and regulations set forth by the DEC, ensuring the environmental sustainability and integrity of the area.”
Unfortunately, this is a misrepresentation.
DEC awarded a permit for the construction. Now the developer wants to unload a substantial amount of fill on the site. That has not been reviewed by DEC and certainly hasn’t been approved by DEC.
Read carefully, it is clear that the mayor’s statements are not accurate. The DEC issued a permit for: “Removal and reconstruction of a single-family dwelling. Installation of a new septic system.”
It requires that “[a]ny … excess excavated materials shall be immediately and completely disposed of on an approved upland site more than 100 feet from any regulated freshland water.”
The reason for this is to prevent runoff of the material (silt, soil) into the pond where it will damage the pond and its ecosystem.
The permit also requires that the work area “be graded to conform with the elevation and contours of the undisturbed land immediately adjacent to the work area.” The permit was issued in March 2022.
In April this year, DEC issued the developer a notice of violation for not complying with the grading requirements of the permit and for clearcutting vegetation within a wetland without a permit.
The current application to the village to place fill on the property at the very least undercuts the intent of the permit as the runoff from a smaller pile of fill on the property is causing erosion and sedimentation already.
Not only does the mayor mispresent information, but she in turn accuses the opposition to the application of misrepresenting information without ever stating what information was misrepresented.
In essence, she calls the opposition liars and then expects that people should believe her that there is nothing to be concerned about.
She invokes a permit from another government entity to give herself some credibility, but a careful reading of her statements quickly exposes her misrepresentation of the situation.
In one of the last few paragraphs of the letter, the mayor writes, “We understand the concerns that may arise from hearing such information, especially when it pertains to our cherished ecosystems. However, it is our duty to provide you with accurate and reliable information, dispelling any misconceptions that may cause unnecessary anxiety or worry among village residents and environmentalists.”
After offering to answer questions, the mayor reiterates her primary message, “In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that the flyer and petition circulating within our community contains misleading and inaccurate information. I urge you to disregard these documents and trust the expertise of the relevant authorities who have ensured that all appropriate protocols are followed.”
We still don’t know what the misleading and inaccurate information is nor do we know who the relevant authorities are or what protocols they followed to address the specific issue of the fill and the threat it presents.
The letter ends with “We remain committed to transparency, accurate communication, and the well-being of our beloved Village.”
It is as if saying, being committed to transparency is the same as being transparent. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
It is incumbent upon all of us to stand up in the face of efforts to shut down voices and to challenge those that accuse others of falsehood without any evidence or basis for doing so other than to try to silence them.
However, the threats to Leeds Pond are real; just as real as they were over thirty years ago when people speaking out to bring attention to threats to the pond from sediment, succeeded in getting a coordinated and successful effort to restore the health of the pond.
Again, the pond and its entire ecosystem are endangered and we must speak out to protect it and to protect our neighbors who are exercising their democratic and constitutional right to voice their opinions.
I have no doubt Save Leeds Pond organizers and supporters would happily speak with the mayor.
Please visit https://saveleedspond.org/u-can-help/ to see what you can do to help.