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Uphill, Downhill: Hidden Impact of Bond Referendum

NyackSchoolsSoftballBondby Marcy Denker

Over the past several years I have been working on various projects related to green infrastructure design and planning as a professional Landscape Designer. This included working with the Nyack’s Green Infrastructure Committee to develop recommendations for code revisions and other initiatives for promoting green infrastructure for stormwater management. One important impetus was a growing awareness of changes in the landscape uphill–lawful or not—that had damaging stormwater impacts downhill. More often than not this has happened because the function and value of green infrastructure are underestimated and poorly understood. I believe that the Nyack School District and the community should take the time to dig deep into the implications of any proposed changes to the landscape at the high school and to learn how to maximize the full potential of the campus.

As you know, federal and state laws that mandate environmental protections continue to evolve. The New York State Stormwater Management Design Manual was updated three years ago to mandate using green infrastructure – that is, using plants, soils and topography to manage stormwater. The techniques include permeable paving, various special planting design techniques to capture, filter and infiltrate water, and tree planting, among others.This new requirement is an important step, but there is no mandate for integrated design thinking and no guarantee of the best use of our natural resources. As a community, we need to know more and bring more to the assessment.

The campus mostly consists of roofs, paving, and bare compacted turf. These impervious surfaces allow water to run quickly out into the streets, nearby yards and through storm drains into the river, carrying along many kinds of pollution. Increased erosion, flooding, and pollution that resulted from the original design of the campus have never been properly remediated.

The proposed changes to the high school campus are designed to optimize the property for sports. According to the slide gallery from the recent public presentation they include the removal of more than acre of woods to build a softball field. The trees in the area proposed for removal are part of the existing stormwater management system for the campus. They provide substantial benefits by capturing rainfall in the canopy and taking thousands of gallons of water up from the soil into the atmosphere. Rainfall that infiltrates the soil recharges ground water. Besides this, the woods provide habitat for many kinds of plants, insects, and animals. And significant increases in temperature in that area that would result from the loss of tree canopy. (The temperature increases associated with synthetic turf should be carefully considered too in terms of direct health effects on children and environmental impacts.) Proposed denuding of most of the wooded slope on the east side of the property will bring new impacts that should be thoroughly assessed. Alternative locations for the field should be reconsidered.

The Environmental Impact Assessment that was prepared for the project does not provide enough information about how the impacts of the proposed landscape changes will be mitigated. Changes to the stormwater management system should be designed to correct existing flaws that create flooding impacts off site and avoid introducing new problems. A high quality design for stormwater management using green infrastructure could be a model for our community and our students.

Cities, towns and campuses across the country now have ambitious and successful tree planting programs to because they recognize the vital roles that that trees play in a healthy landscape. We believe that instead of removing trees, the School District should protect them and embrace efforts to reforest areas on campus wherever possible. Changes to the landscape overall should aim to improve the quality of the environment on campus and these changes should be informed by the best models of sustainable campus planning and design we can find.

Marcy Denker, ASLA is a professional Landscape Designer and a resident of Nyack, NY.

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