Nine Long Islanders have filed suit against LIPA and five other state agencies charging that an $18 million energy and nature center under construction on the west end of Jones Beach will illegally introduce commercial marketing into a pristine preserve while violating state and federal conservation laws.
The 198-page lawsuit, filed earlier this month in state Supreme Court in Nassau, charges LIPA and other state agencies and the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, with violations of the Coastal Barriers Act, the Land and Water Conservation Act and breach of Parkland Alienation laws for building the center, which will replace the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center to the east.
The suit seeks an order to stop the state agencies from “destroying any part of the existing [parking] field,” for conversion into an energy center or training space, and from installing any “physical barriers to the free movement of the public within the field …”
Separately, a Newsday review of LIPA financial documents reveals Long Island ratepayers will pay $9 million toward Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plan for the center, which one vocal critic at a LIPA board meeting last month called “illegal.”
Cuomo spokesman Jordan Levine declined to comment on the pending litigation.
When the center was announced last fall, a Cuomo statement said the $18 million project would be built in a “public-private” partnership with PSEG Long Island, LIPA, the New York Power Authority and “private donors.” Names of private donors weren’t disclosed, but the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation said, “We expect to raise private donations/grants for exhibits.”
According to an LIPA’s 2019 budget document, LIPA’s $9 million contribution will come from its capital budget, which is funded through rates and long-term borrowing.
In addition to those costs to ratepayers, PSEG Long Island will staff the center when it’s complete in late 2020 or early 2021 with one full-time and two part-time employees from its marketing department, spokeswoman Elizabeth Flagler said. PSEG will promote and market the center through its existing marketing budget, which, like the staffing, is funded through LIPA rates. Flagler said the utility has yet to finalize amounts for those budget items.
LIPA’s budget says the center would set an example of “sustainable, resilient design.” But Huntington engineer and LIPA gadfly Daniel Karpen described it to trustees as an “illegal park alienation” in defiance of the state law.
“It’s not a legitimate park purpose,” said Karpen at last month’s LIPA trustees meeting. Told of the $9 million price tag Wednesday, he called it a “total waste” of ratepayer money.
George Gorman, deputy regional director of the office of State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, who hailed the center in a Newsday story last year, didn’t return a call seeking comment.
Dan Keefe, a parks spokesman, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Alena Walters, one of the nine Long Islanders who are named plaintiffs in the suit, said she and others have been aghast at the extent of construction.
“The area is a very serene and tranquil place where hardworking people go to get peace and quiet and closer to nature,” she said.
The center, she charged, will be used to garner public support for LIPA and other state energy projects, including pending wind farms off Jones Beach and cables that will bring high voltage onto land through a section of the park to the east. Cuomo has a plan for upward of 9,000 megawatts of wind energy, with 800 megawatts expected to be announced in coming weeks. One could be as close as 12 to 14 miles from shore.
PSEG’s Flagler said the project will “help to support aggressive energy efficiency and renewable goals, as well as avoid future generation costs.”
Construction already underway has restricted about half of the West End parking lots, which the suit says are widely used by birds and birdwatchers, while excavators remove large sections of concrete.
The current Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center had no visitors Thursday, with three park employees staffing it. One worker said the roof leaks. It’s covered in silver tarps, and there are buckets inside to collect water.
LIPA’s budget says the new center will be an “interactive facility for visitors of all ages to become stewards of the environment and smart energy consumers.” LIPA’s $9 million contribution is about half the price for the facility.
Cuomo, in announcing the center, said it would highlight the state’s “commitment to providing the very best recreation and tourism opportunities to both residents and visitors. ”
The lawsuit says the plans include razing a former nature center on the site to replace it with a new 13,000- to 15,000-square-foot building, while constructing an artificial sand dune at the site that will restrict views of the ocean sunrise, Walters said.
The suit alleges LIPA and the New York Power Authority will conduct a “soft-marketing campaign” at the energy center to facilitate acquisition of land easements (on parkland) for the routing of high-voltage direct-current power cable, while designating the West End “parkland preservation area” to “advance-prepare for a land taking of parkland for its conversion to [an] industrial site to support offshore power plants, which requires excavation and clearing …”
Spokespersons for LIPA, the Department of Environmental Conservation, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the Department of State and NYPA either didn’t respond or referred calls to the Parks Department.