I mentioned to reader Mike From Garden City in Monday's comments section that Long Island loses if both sides devolve into screaming at the Lighthouse Re-Zoning Hearing. Yesterday's hearing was full of grandstanding, frustration, and a tension among residents that we had not yet seen in public. Given the screaming, the booing, and, at times, the disrespect, I would say that Long Island lost...but that doesn't mean the Lighthouse Project is lost.
I will follow my usual protocol for this, since others have already begun writeups, and share some of my key themes and take-aways. I also have some news about what we can expect moving forward.
Somewhat lost in the high emotion of the re-zoning hearing was that the Islanders played a preseason game in Kansas City last night, at an arena that was barely half full (some estimates had the crowd as low as 3,000 - though other figures had it slightly over 9,000). From an Islanders perspective, this proves what many (including myself) have said all along: Kansas City was never truly an option.
The best evidence of this? Charles Wang was at the Lighthouse hearing all day - and Chris Dey, Islanders President, was there for the evening session. Neither attended the game.
Yesterday, the Lighthouse unveiled the over 4,000 pages worth of a Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement (FGEIS) and submitted it to the Town of Hempstead. The Town, as Lead Agency, now has the duty to review the document, accept it, and issue what is called a Finding Statement, in which they outline their impression of the document and certify it is both complete and correct. The clock is now ticking with this.
Opponents Out, Challenged
Garden City - as I predicted on Monday - had a significant presence at the hearing, with everyone from the mayor to numerous trustees voicing opposition. Most of it was the same arguments about "urbanizing Long Island" and "eyesore towers" (I'm sure the smokestack is a much better view), as we've heard before. It always interests me that these individuals claim they want to have a conversation yet run out of the meeting as soon as they are finished speaking about how awful the Lighthouse is.
However, yesterday we decided to take matters into our own hands. A few of us, including regular commenters on this site, Art Feeney from The 7th Man, and Dom from Islandermania decided to engage the Garden City crew that remained during the first break. The conversation turned tense at times, because we pointed out some instances of hypocrisy, and the fact that they never spoke as harshly in public as they did in private. On the whole, it was amiable, and we did our best to get our points across.
Our conversation with a gentleman from the Eastern Property Owners' Association was most telling. He was against every potential option for the site, and when loyal reader Marc finally asked the gentleman what he DID want, he said I just want to be left alone. It's telling.
There were other opponents who seemed to want it both ways, saying they were in favor of a new arena but not the rest of the Lighthouse. Either these people are uninformed, or they just want Charles Wang to make a donation to Nassau County.
Still others fixated on the height of the buildings, at the expense of everything else. One kept saying "If 40-story buildings are the answer, let's build them from here to Montauk Point."
This brings up an interesting point that we should probably discuss in a full blog post. The Lighthouse has now done 213 public outreach meetings, even though the "Meet Me at the Lighthouse" commercial could do a better job of explaining the content and benefits of the project, and there has been constant (if strange) media coverage. So many people, however, still did not know what was in the project and did not understand the benefits.....and we need to ask ourselves if that's the fault of these citizens, or of the Lighthouse.
On the whole, the opposition was present, but they lacked a coherent narrative. A reader (please remind me which one of you it was) had an excellent point: if these opponents convince the Town of Hempstead to vote against the Lighthouse, they were never for it.
Rhetoric Sharpens...On Both Sides
I don't remember any Lighthouse hearing being so rough, with both supporters and opponents cheering loudly, booing loudly, and yelling at each other throughout the proceedings. Tensions were clearly high, as people on both sides realized that this was end-game. I think the real story here is that it took so long for the debate to take a nasty turn in public.
Town Board Grandstands - Lighthouse Answers, Stumbles
Most meetings like this are for grandstanding, and the Town Board did not disappoint. Councilman Anthony Santino was clearly the attack dog yesterday, as he asked most of the tough questions yesterday (even though all board members except Councilwoman Angie Cullen and Supervisor Kate Murray joined in on the act at some point or another). We should be used to this, since those of us who went to the February 24 hearing remember that two gentlemen who wanted to landscape their body shop in Bellmore were grilled about types of plants and other minutia for 45 minutes. It is not surprising, then, that the Town grilled the Lighthouse for almost 5 hours yesterday.
There were many legitimate questions, including those about water usage, sewage capacity, the types of streets built on the site, and the view of the large buildings from different vantage points. However, in my opinion, there were also times when the Town Board crossed a line. We spent 10 minutes at one point discussing what constitutes a "building," for example. Councilman Darcy questioned a proposed new traffic light by asking what would happen if somebody ran the light. Councilman Santino questioned the findings of the Lighthouse traffic consultant, even though other government agencies signed off on the methodology. Many Board members asked why certain streets were not included in the traffic study when the Town of Hempstead itself defined the scope of the environmental review and did not ask for those streets to be included. At times, Board members would ask questions and then, after they were answered, loudly ask them again, claiming that nobody answered them. It seemed very strange to me.
The Lighthouse seemed prepared and provided answers, sometimes after searching through their information to be sure the figure was accurate. However, they did not come off as fully prepared in certain instances. Their traffic consultant, a pre-eminent expert in this field who has received awards for his work, made a mistake on the stand (seeming to present a figure as the total number of new car trips as a result of the Lighthouse when he was actually presenting the new car trips per peak hour) and was taken to task by the Town Board for a long, long time. Transportation is one area where the solution must be improved as the project build-out goes on, and this consultant did not make himself look good. Other consultants were subject to grilling as well, with some feeling caught off guard by the Town's line of questioning. This is odd since Scott Rechler is such a veteran of these proceedings; he knows how they go, and he seemed the most composed at the Lighthouse table.
On the whole, I believe the Lighthouse has answered many key questions, and many mistakes they made were ones of presentation. At the same time, the Town Board asked many legitimate questions that need answers, but they also seemed to ask at times for a solution that would solve all the existing problems of Long Island. This is not possible; the Lighthouse is a catalyst that will hopefully lead to more good decisions and ensure the long-term economic and social viability of Long Island.
Adding to this Theater of the Absurd was a ridiculously slanted piece in Long Island's major newspaper, in which a reporter calls the Town Board "polite," the Lighthouse Project "unprepared," and dismissed supporters as "union members" (there were union members there - as is their right - but they were not the only supporters, not by a longshot). Even more troubling is that this reporter began to parrot the same lines a Town of Hempstead source gave to my friend BD Gallof - an impression that did not match those of the people actually in the room.
Both sides expressed a need for "certainty" - with Charles Wang reminding everyone that his October 3 deadline is now 10 days away, and the Town of Hempstead reminding everyone that they want to make sure the project that is approved is the one that is built.
There were a few observations I have that didn't really seem to fit anywhere else, so I'll put them here:
- Even though the split was about 75-25 in favor of the Lighthouse most of the day, and it was never below 60-40, a disproportionate number of speakers were against the project, and many supporters did not get to speak. It was also interesting that, as Chris Botta noted in his liveblog, I was asked to "wrap it up" when 30 seconds over time, when many opponents were able to speak for 6 minutes instead of the allotted 2. Since you were asked to state your position on the Lighthouse in the sign-in cards, it makes you wonder.
- It is well known that County Executive Tom Suozzi kicked off the political gamesmanship by criticizing Kate Murray in the press. Could some of this tough questioning have been a response to that?
- Kate Murray conducted a flash poll at the end, asking supporters and opponents, in turns, to stand up. At least 75% of the room stood in favor of the Lighthouse.
- Organized labor, through leaders like John Durso and James Castellane, is standing up strongly for the Lighthouse
- Kristen "I'm Running by Not Running" McElroy was nowhere to be found. Some prominent Democrats have admitted in private that nominating her was akin to "punting the Town of Hempstead away"
- The hockey issue is still upon us, with some supporters speaking only about that angle, and almost all opponents trying to tie supporters together as nothing more than "mindless hockey fans"
- It is now up to the Lighthouse and the Town to get together and reach an agreement that is amenable to both sides
- We can't let up now....the passion for this hearing did not even come close to matching that from the public hearing on August 4, and we cannot let this downward trend continue.
I will not sugarcoat or gloss over the facts and say this was a banner day for the Lighthouse Project. It wasn't. There were many troubling things coming out of yesterday, including a more vocal (though still small) opposition, a Town Board that handled questions strangely and seemed at times to favor negative speakers, and a Lighthouse that, while answering questions well, did not seem prepared for the grilling they received. The tenor seemed different, with supporters regularly booing negative speakers, and citizens yelling at both the Town Board and each other from the floor of the Adams Playhouse.
That having been said, I am not going to go Chicken Little and scream about how the sky is falling, either. The Town Board got its chance to grandstand in public, the Lighthouse now knows what to expect, and the real work will continue behind closed doors. It is time for the adults to stand up, take control of this debate, and make it clear that, for the sake of Long Island, this project cannot and will not fail.
I have a ready comparison for this: Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation to the Supreme Court. Ms. Sotomayor was grilled by Senators about minor things, given some disturbing labels, and elicited concerns out of some senators...in public. However, she still sailed to confirmation.
I spoke to roughly 10 people yesterday, all of whom had more experience with the Town Board than I, and, to a person, they all described yesterday's hearing as little more than kabuki. These sorts of hearings are for grandstanding, they said, but the Town Board will not let this fail at the end of the day. They know too much is at stake - including their jobs.
Regardless, we need to continue doing what we're doing and advocating in a strong but respectful way for the Lighthouse Project. We have come too far, and we have fought too hard to let this die now. I still believe this will get done, though the timeframe is debatable.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I pulled Joe Ra from the Town of Hempstead aside for a quick discussion during the first break. I asked him, straight-up, what it would take for us to see a vote on re-zoning. Mr. Ra told me the Town must adopt the Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement (FGEIS) and issue its Finding Statement before the vote on zoning can come. Based on previous history, I think I have a good idea of the timelines we can expect.
Everyone, mark the following day on your calendar:
This Town Board meeting will be held 4 weeks after submission of the FGEIS, and it will hopefully give the Town (assuming FP Clark doesn't stop working again) ample time to review the document and decide whether it meets the legal burden of being complete and correct, doing everything possible to mitigate negative impact on the environment. We could see a vote to accept the FGEIS on this date, though some sources I've asked believe this is not possible.
Now, here's where things get interesting. If the Town of Hempstead follows its past behavior, they could vote to accept the FGEIS and then schedule a vote on re-zoning for the next Town Board meeting:
A week after Election Day.
Buckle up, everyone. The next few weeks might be a bumpy ride.