Volume 23, Number 15 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | August 18 - 24, 2010
Hands off the gardens
Two weeks ago, Adrian Benepe, the city’s Parks Department commissioner, assured community garden advocates that the proposed new rules for governing the nearly 300 gardens currently under Parks’ jurisdiction would not threaten the green spaces’ existence.
However, garden advocates — from the East Village and Lower East Side, where there are 35 community gardens, to the burgeoning neighborhoods of Battery Park City and Tribeca — remain anxious about the rules that are being drafted to replace a 2002 city-state agreement that expires Sept. 17; they fear the new guidelines will leave the gardens open to development.
That concern — and a firm resolve to fight the new rules — were in evidence at a hearing at the Chelsea Recreation Center last week, where several gardeners were ejected for protesting and a crowd of 200 strong chanted, “More gardens, less hearings!”
Most troubling, the proposed new rules omit reference to “preservation” of the gardens, which is included in the agreement about to expire. Advocates, in fact, hoped that the new rules would designate the gardens with the word “permanent” — but Benepe says it’s not possible to do that.
Holding out some some hope, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has suggested that the Council would consider legislation to protect community gardens.
While Benepe and Parks officials continue to try — unsuccessfully — to reassure local green thumbs not to worry, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is also raising questions about the proposed regulations. D.E.C. officials think that there is, indeed, very good reason to worry about these new regulations.
Specifically, Chris Amato, assistant commissioner of D.E.C.’s Office of Natural Resources, stated in a letter to Parks and the Department of Housing Preservation — which is co-authoring the new regulations along with Parks — that the new regulations “could have the effect of significantly diminishing some of the protections currently afforded to GreenThumb gardens.”
Amato, in fact, was the lead attorney for the state in the lawsuit filed against New York City to prevent the sale of more than 100 community gardens, which resulted in the 2002 agreement that has protected the gardens up until now. According to Amato, the agreement eight years ago, in no uncertain terms, provided for the “permanent preservation” of nearly 200 GreenThumb gardens. And yet, according to Amato, “[T]he proposed regulations appear to eliminate the permanent protection for approximately 198 GreenThumb gardens provided under the Agreement.”
The 2002 agreement states that these so-called “Offer for Preservation” gardens are either to be offered to the Parks Department for permanent preservation as community gardens or open space, or to one or more nonprofit land trust organizations to do the same.
“Unfortunately,” Amato wrote, “the [proposed] regulations appear to eliminate this important protection by subjecting all GreenThumb gardens, regardless of their status under the Agreement, to potential sale or development.”
It’s a fact that New York City and New York State signed a memorandum of agreement on the community gardens back in 2002 in which the city expressly agreed that 198 GreenThumb community gardens were to become permanent. Basically, the City must now abide by the pledge that it made in good faith in signing onto this commitment. (Another 86 gardens out of the 300 are already under Parks Department control.)
Clearly, as seen in Amato’s statements, the State is neither comfortable with nor does it agree with the new tack that the City is taking — in short, that the City apparently is trying to pull an end run around the agreement it signed.
Although we haven’t specifically heard talk of potential litigation yet, it naturally would be expected that the City’s refusal to hold up its end of the agreement would end up in yet another lawsuit over the gardens.
Which begs the question: Why must the community gardens continue to be a battleground? Clearly, these green oases have become such integral parts of our communities. They provide so many benefits — to our health and nutrition (cleaning our air, yielding fruits, vegetables and herbs), to our sanity, to our sense of community, to our quality of life and the very livability of our neighborhoods. All of that must surely be abundantly clear by now to our mayor and our Parks commissioner.
Hands off the gardens! Honor the agreement. The new regulations must be revised and rewritten without an ounce of ambiguity or the slightest trace of a loophole as to the gardens’ complete preservation and permanence.