Last Wednesday, we had approximately 200 people attend the public hearing on the bike path proposal. Although many support the proposed plan (both vocally and in written comments), some, mostly residents of West River, expressed concerns. The NY State Parks listened and are taking some of the concerns into consideration and revising the plan – just like they did with the concerns voiced last year at the Public Hearing. In fact, that hearing was the catalyst for the latest version of the plan, which involves re-purposing the West River Parkway.
Now, I was only able to give a brief introduction at the meeting as per the request of NY State Parks, but I wanted to share a few thoughts and expand on a few of my comments.
How did ‘we’ get here?
I think we need to go over this history again. People have been talking about a bike path along West River for years. The previous Town Board set the wheels in motion by submitting a formal application. They, (which included two of our current Board members), facilitated hearings and ensured the NY State Parks took the concerns of the residents into consideration. It was determined that the people of Grand Island, and especially the people living along West River, were against four things: additional asphalt, guardrails, losing the duck blinds and anything that might impair their view of the river. To address these concerns, and to adjust for rising costs, the State Parks decided re-purposing of the Parkway was the best option.
How did ‘I’ get here?
Please let me explain where things stood when I came into office. I visited with the State Parks my first month. I talked about several things with them, including some upcoming, exciting changes to Beaver Island (hopefully more on that soon). But when I asked about the bike path, they looked grim and frustrated. They were not giving up on that space entirely, but the bike path had lingered incomplete. They said there was a risk that the money might be used for other purposes, (i.e., reallocated), if a decision was not made soon.
When they raised the idea of repurposing the Parkway, the State Parks made a compelling case. Their presentation to me set out clear justifications, including DOT traffic studies that show the underuse of the roadway. The numbers don’t lie: 28 cars per hour from 8 am to 8 pm, on average, travel the West River Parkway! We can debate it until the sun fades into a cold spot, but we all know that road is not full of heavy traffic and not maintained half the year. The State Parks also showed me that the new plan posed a low environmental impact, and that the project will open the area to other recreational activities, including walking, running, and wintertime pursuits. In other words, it would not really be just a bike path, but a multi-purpose corridor.
So what’s a new Supervisor to do? I knew that eventually the Parkway would fall into disrepair, as it’s already starting to fray. And I saw the wheels spinning in the minds of the State Parks reps. We need to remember that West River Parkway sits on State-owned land. Some have alleged that the Town will take over the cost of the maintenance. That will never happen. The State has the power to make alterations as it sees fit. We can kid ourselves, but there is no way that that beautiful space will remain untouched, even if the bike path is not completed. We could delay change, but not forever. Would filling the Parkway with dirt come next? And then what? Cabins?
I looked at the options before me and I pledged to advocate for the least intrusive plan: closing the Parkway, fixing it for multi-purpose use (not cars), turning it over to the State Parks (hopefully out of DOT controlled limbo), and locking it up forever as a green space for Grand Island.
I asked the State to present the new plan
State officials had no legal obligation to hold another public hearing. I asked for it. And I convinced them to extend the meeting time by an hour, to ensure that all who wanted to speak, had an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings. I knew that we, the Town, could not control what happens to the Parkway ultimately, but we could sure help shape the outcome. And that’s why I got out in front of this. I wanted to help build consensus. I knew I would take some lumps, but I knew it was the right thing to do.
The meeting, for the most part, was an example of Grand Island at its best. With very few exceptions, speakers were respectful of one another, and opinions were expressed without rancor, scorn, or ridicule. We also had several important advocacy groups, like The Greenway Commission, conservationist organizations, and cycling clubs, come from off the Island to support the plan. Thank you to all who participated, regardless of which side you are on.
I must state, however, that towards the end, a small handful of opponents chose to be accusatory and belligerent. Disagreement is essential to democracy: we share our viewpoints, we debate our differences, and we reach the best possible solutions. A democracy that doesn’t have room for disagreement or debate is not a democracy at all. But open hostility is not disagreement. It’s intimidation. Some, with clench-fists and rage, attempted to shout down proponents of the plan. A young mother who spoke of wanting a place to walk with her children was booed. A young man said he enjoyed visiting cities, like London, where bike paths are common. An angry voice shouted, “Then go live there!”
We are better than that kind of ugliness. And I will continue to call it out. Moreover, I will never do what would be easiest, which is to side with the loudest or the most privileged over the concerns of the many and punt the ball for a future generation to handle. That’s what a politician with a hidden agenda would do. But I’m not so interested in your vote, as I am doing what’s best for Grand Island. If you disagree with my judgment, you can vote me out later. Until then, I’m going to represent the greater good, and not any special interests, no matter how intent their fury.
I’ll continue to fight
Converting West River Parkway to a recreational multi-use trail is an enormous change for the Island. Change is difficult. The trouble with change is that it comes, no matter what. I understand that some of you are worried about privacy, property values, and quality of life. I promise you that I am doing everything I can to make this change as fair and as beneficial as I can, including working with State Parks to eliminate as many of the proposed parking lots as possible. Here’s the thing folks; because I’ve been a big supporter of the State Parks and worked with them on this plan, we have developed a good relationship. They saw me stand up and lead, so they are willing to listen to me. I’ll do what I can.
I’ll also continue to fight for the service road. That road should not become spill over space for whatever speeding traffic does exist on the Parkway. As long as I’m Supervisor (and Commissioner of Police) I’ll make sure that we step up patrols. I’ll just come right out and say it; we can make that a speed trap. I will not be around forever, but I will be around long enough to hopefully condition people to not think of that road as anything but a local street for residents. And if we can get some of the pass-by traffic funneled towards Grand Island Blvd, who knows what benefits that will bring? Maybe some of those workers at the factory will start stopping by one of our local restaurant for a sandwich once in a while.
Since 2013, years before I took office, dedicated public servants, (two of which still serve), have advocated for the Island’s interests in negotiations over a bike path on the West River. After countless hours of meetings and planning sessions and telephone conversations, the State offered a plan that serves the best interests of our community as a whole. They offered one more Public Hearing and are now reviewing the most recent round of comments and fine tuning their plans, with concerns raised on Wednesday in mind. While they do their work, I will move on to other items. But make no mistake. I remain committed to this plan because I think it’s the best option available. God forbid that it goes away completely, or some other new Supervisor a decade hence is asking why we wasted two million dollars on a strip alongside the service road when the Parkway has given way completely to entropy.
Some may despise me for wanting to find a way to make it easier for families to go for a bike ride or jog along the river. There’s nothing I can say or do to change their minds. But, from the overwhelming positive feedback we are receiving, most of you, like me, want to find a way to make this work. To the many residents, (including some good-natured and open-minded West River residents), who shared constructive feedback on ways to improve upon the State Park’s plan, I say thank you! The repurposing of West River Parkway is not a death knell for Grand Island – it’s a golden opportunity!