“Shame on anyone who would prevent a children’s park from being built” remarked Joe Baker, president of the South Merrick Community Civic Association, after Hempstead Supervisor Anthony Santino reserved decision at an October 3 town Board meeting until after election on whether to pass a resolution on an Inter Municipal Agreement to build a new children’s park at Wynsum Avenue and Illona Lane in Merrick.
“It’s mind-boggling that the resolution was ‘tabled’,” added Jay Rogoff, chairman of the Let’s Play 11566 Committee to construct the children’s park.
SMCCA President Joe Baker, Let’s Play President Jay Rogoff and Town of Hempstead Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney listen to attendees’ remarks
The board meeting, according to Alex Vassallo, chief of staff for Town Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney – which represents the district where many residents have raised $25,000 to get the children’s park built – was to address the need to secure funding of $75,000 from Nassau County and $100,000 from the state before the end of the year when a new county administration is sworn in and could potentially eliminate its support.
Vassello told Your NewsMag it will be hard to determine when – or if – the resolution is brought up again at future meetings. But he added that Councilwoman King Sweeney had recently reached out to both parties to resolve the issue.
Building the children’s park at an existing pocket park at the corner of Wynsum Avenue and Illona Lane on the Hewlett peninsula in south Merrick turned into a contentious issue when the town conducted a second survey and found some residents adjoining the park were now against it.
After conducting an initial survey in summer 2016 Supervisor Santino wrote a letter to Nassau County Legislator Steve Rhoads (19thLD) [July 28, 2016] saying that “The Town of Hempstead and I would like to formally request funding of a Community Revitalization Project in the amount of $75,000 for a project located in the South Merrick community of your legislative district.”
The letter continued, saying neighbors and the town were seeking to partner to upgrade the facility so it can better serve the middle-class families [and children] who utilize it throughout the year. “Coupled with donations and investment by community stakeholders, this project that Hempstead Town had spearheaded with your office had the potential of bettering the community’s quality of life and further enhancing community parkland and open space.”
2-to-1 IN FAVOR OF PARK
Jay Rogoff, chairman of the Lets Play 15566 committee to build the children’s park, said the town’s initial survey found a ratio of 2-to-1 of those canvassed in favor of the park, spurring the letter to Legislator Rhoads. That letter, at least to Rogoff and those on the committee, “was implicit in its permission to build the park.”
“I just don’t know what happened between our initial survey and the latest one,”Rogoff said.
During a meeting of the South Merrick Community Civic Association at the Merrick Clubhouse in late September, William Muller, attorney for Supervisor Santino, appeared to explain what happened. He told some 45 in attendance that further canvassing of the surrounding areas of the park by the town found that families in homes adjoining the open field property were not in favor of the project – as those homes and families further away from the open field were.
“Do we look to pay for a park in the community in which many people have come out against it?” Muller asked. “It’s hard to approve a project when many people are opposed to it.”
Councilwoman King Sweeney and Santino representative William Muller discuss ways of moving forward at the meeting
A resident identified only as Danny remarked that initial canvassing didn’t have many residents opposing it, but a second canvassing apparently “ran into more opposition.”
One public official, who asked to remain anonymous, told Your NewsMag that plenty of projects have gone through in the face of objections. “Opposition doesn’t necessarily stop a project,” the official said. Cited was the 2-1 ratio of those in favor in the initial survey – suggesting there were those already opposed – and the move by Santino to write the letter to Legislator Rhoads requesting reimbursement funding in the face of that opposition.
Muller said that only after Santino signed the letter to Legislator Rhoads did he learn of more opposition growing against the park.
“Where are these new [canvassing] findings, and what was the scientific criteria for applying them?” Lauren Gillen, a Democrat running for the Town of Hempstead Supervisor seat, demanded to know. Muller said he had put them up on a website.
Adding urgency to the project is that those farther away from the proposed park could have difficulty reclaiming their investment should the park not be built.
The central objection among homeowners whose property adjoins the open space at Wynsum Avenue and Illona Lane is the danger it will pose to children in the immediate area, because Wynsum curves as it approaches the open space, creating a blind spot. Parking in front of homes is also a primary concern for these immediate residents.
“We don’t really want extra cars and trash in front of our homes,” said a resident identifying himself as Howie, whose property abuts the open space.
Only 6% of approximately 3 acres of the pocket park would be used for a children’s playground
Aaron Goldsmith seemed particularly incensed about a children’s park being built in the open space. “I have three kids and I oppose this park being built,” he said. He said the open field and park are like a part of his backyard, adding that his children can play at any one of a number of children’s parks available nearby, such as Julien Park [on the Clubhouse peninsula in south Merrick], Newbridge Road Park and at Birch school.
“This is not about kids playing at 9 a.m., it’s more about what people do and the behavior of kids,” he continued.
“And a new field would add a greater population of traffic to the existing area,” he concluded.
Dana Rogoff, however, found those arguments particularly specious. A Kennedy graduate who lived near Julien Park before graduating and leaving Merrick only to return to raise a family on the Hewlett peninsula, said plenty of residents from the Hewlett peninsula would travel to Julien Park on the other peninsula, and park in front of homes close to that park.
“No one” in the area immediately surrounding Julien Park complained about an increase in traffic, peculiar behavior, cars parking in front of their homes or trash spreading around, she said.
Nassau County Seventh Precinct Deputy Commanding Office Leahy, along with Officer Bill Taylor of the precinct’s POP Unit, both testified before those in attendance that there had been only one accident in three years near the “blind spot” on Wynsum Avenue, and that there is not as much traffic along the street during the week – as has been perceived.
“People speed around Merrick all time,” a resident identified only as Monica, said. “Speeding has nothing to do with the park,” she implored, “and those opposed are trying to decide for the rest of us” what we should be able to enjoy in our community.
Jay Rogoff showed a map of the homes his committee canvassed when the project first started nearly three years ago. The map showed several homes surrounding the open space as being open to the idea of a children’s park. But Paul Goldman laughed off the map, saying he lives close to the open space and he was never for the children’s park. Indeed, he questioned the methods Rogoff used in determining who was for or against the park.
MEETING TAKES PLACE
The SMCCA meeting was seen primarily as an attempt to help bridge the gap in opposing views in building the children’s park to get the project moving once more. Goldman did appear to reach out with an “olive leaf” to Rogoff, saying the community “has to move forward. Let those of us opposed meet with those who agree” to see where a common ground lies.
Vassallo said that Councilwoman King Sweeney had reached out to both parties to resolve the issue, as well.
A meeting among opposition leaders Aaron Goldsmith and his wife Ali, and Paul Goldman; and Rogoff, Katie Stone and Royce Winnick of the Let’s Play 15566 Committee did take place at Councilwoman King Sweeney’s house days after the SMCCA meeting.
Rogoff said during the meeting the Goldsmiths and Goldman discussed their differences and concerns, and asked where common ground may lie to move the project forward. “Only 6% of the roughly three-acre pocket park would be occupied by playgrounds for two age groups: between 2-5 year olds, and 5-12 year olds,” said Rogoff.
He told Your NewsMag he was in touch regularly with the Goldsmiths and Goldman to continue to explore ways to find a consensus.
He said the project would start “small,” with the 2-5 year-old playground being built first from 50% of the funds needed up front. He called it a “rush” to get the project moving in the face of elections, to at least build one playground for one small group of children.
Rogoff added that the town was building a new fence around the perimeter of the property.
An email to Matt Coleman, a spokesperson for Muller, asking about the merits of the case, was not returned by posting.