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Harrison’s Beaver Swamp Brook Restoration: Home Run or Rain Out?

homerthumbIt seemed like a good idea. Clean up contaminated wetlands; provide new baseball and soccer fields; minimize flood problems. Fifteen years later, what was supposed to be a win-win project for the residents of Harrison and Rye has turned into its own engineering, legal, and, political swamp.


By Walt Mardis

 

It seemed like a good idea. Clean up contaminated wetlands; provide new baseball and soccer fields; minimize flood problems. Fifteen years later, what was supposed to be a win-win project for the residents of Harrison and Rye has turned into its own engineering, legal, and, political swamp.

 

homeruninsideProject Home Run, as it was tagged by some of its supporters, has generated a longstanding feud between Harrison and neighboring Rye, pitted the town government of Harrison against a vocal group of its own citizens, contributed to the defeat of one Harrison Mayor, and generated hundreds of pages of judicial reviews and rulings.


Of equal concern, the project has cost taxpayers over $10 million, including over $3.5 million of Harrison town money, and over $7 million from the State of New York and the Federal government. To date, it has not provided one more acre of useable park space. In fact, the entire parcel is now surrounded by fences and continues to be subject to severe flooding, as shown in the picture from Hurricane Irene.

 

The project was the brainchild of a citizens group in Harrison in the mid-1990s.  Over the years, the land, known as Beaver Swamp Brook, had become a dumping ground and was littered with trash, tires, old refrigerators, and even abandoned cars. More importantly, the ground was severely polluted, posing a serious health risk, especially for people living around or downstream of the area. Initially, according to Ernie Fiore, one of the leaders of the citizens group, the only goals of the effort were to clean up the site, return it to a more natural habitat and, if possible, reduce the threat of flooding.

 

When Steve Malfitano was elected Mayor of Harrison in 2002, he expanded on the original vision, including tripling the amount of land to be reclaimed. Mr. Malfitano saw the program as an opportunity to rid the Town of a blighted area, provide solutions to serious environmental problems and create open space to build new recreational facilities. By the early part of the decade, plans were in place for a full-scale transformation of the property and work began in dredging contaminated soil, adding new topsoil, and reshaping the land.

 

Initially, Rye supported the plan for remediation, but in 2007 major flooding of the area occurred, following especially heavy rains. At this point, officials from Rye, as well as some Harrison residents, began to express serious misgivings about Project Home Run and became suspicious about whether the remediation and the added fill had somehow increased the potential for flooding.

 

Mr. Malfitano retorts that two separate engineering firms, one hired jointly by Rye and Harrison and one by Harrison, as well as the State Department of Conservation (DEC), concluded that excavating the site and adding two feet of topsoil would not alter traditional water runoff levels or cause additional flooding. Because, he contends, the area had not experienced hurricane-type deluges in recent years, most nearby residents had not actually witnessed how severe the flooding in the area might be, regardless of changes to the topography. Rye’s current consultants (as well as many nearby residents) dispute that and argue that the project has significantly worsened the damage to properties.

 

The disagreement has led to a protracted legal battle between the two communities that continues to work its way through the administrative law courts of New York’s DEC.  Kristen Wilson, an attorney representing Rye in the case, says that over the past four years there have been multiple reviews by the DEC but, up to now, no final decisions on whether Harrison will receive final permission to complete work on the property or, conversely, if Rye can force some sort of restructuring of the plans. Most of the rulings to date, however, do appear to be in Harrison’s favor.

 

Mayor Joan Walsh, who replaced Malfitano in 2008, has taken a middle path in dealing with the controversy. Although one of her main campaign issues centered on the problems with Project Home Run, she has not taken sides with Rye and does not see the need for or even the possibility of making major changes in the current topography of the site. Further, Mayor Walsh says, that even if she wanted to return everything to something like its original form, the DEC would not allow the town to remove the two feet of fill that now sits on top of a barrier liner. Nor, she contends, would the US Army Corps of Engineers permit any dredging of the streambed, which might alleviate some of the problems.

 

Mayor Walsh has, however, pledged to cut back on the extent of the development of the property. “As long as I am mayor,” she emphasizes, “we will not build formal baseball or soccer fields on the site.” Instead, she envisions an open space meadow with some benches and trees, an area set aside for pick-up ball, and, perhaps, a jogging track. She also sees prospects for hope in a new planning initiative in the neighboring Village of Mamaroneck. “Part of the flooding problem results when stormwater hits obstructions further down Beaver Swamp Brook, on the Mamaroneck side of the border,” Mayor Walsh says, “and Mamaroneck officials are now looking at ways to address this.”

 

Mr. Malfitano, who is running for a seat on Harrison’s Town Board, says that he has long agreed that something needs to be done and, consistent with the recommendations of engineering firms, the solution lies with fixes on the Mamaroneck side of the border. While he strongly disagrees that Project Home Run is responsible for the seeming increases in recent flooding, he stresses that he fully understands the frustration of homeowners. “It’s very disheartening,” he says, “to know we have done the right thing with the Beaver Swamp and yet to see how many residents feel that somehow we have caused their problems. Regardless of what the source of the problem is, they definitely deserve to have this fixed.”

 

Many of the homeowners bordering Beaver Creek, as well as the City of Rye, remain dissatisfied with Harrison’s position. Some of the nearby residents claim that Harrison put far more fill on the site than allowed by the State and significantly contributed to the increased flooding (which Ms. Walsh and Mr. Malfitano both deny).   

 

Rye Mayor Doug French continues to believe that Harrison is not addressing the extent of the flooding situation and the need to devote much more attention to using the wetlands area for retention of storm flows. “It is incumbent on the leaders of both municipalities and on the State DEC to get something done,” he says. “We all have to move past the history and the animosity and come up with solutions that serve the needs of residents of both communities.”  

 

What is the right solution? “We are supportive of the park, but we should use this opportunity to create more water storage and limit the extent of impervious surfaces,” Mayor French contends. “Unless and until we start working together and determine the impact of Project Home Run on flooding, we will never come up with the right remedies.”


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