On a twisty stretch of road, safety is pitted against ecological preservation

On a twisty stretch of road, safety is pitted against ecological preservation

Posted on 24. Aug, 2009 by Nathan Ehrlich in Public Affairs

Just east of John F. Kennedy International Airport sits one of the largest protected marshlands in all of New York City—Idlewild wetlands, a network of ponds, creeks, and marshes that are a vital part of the Jamaica Bay ecosystem.  The sole development on this plot of land, which is protected under environmental laws, is a stretch of Brookville Boulevard known by the local Rosedale community as “Snake Road.”

If one were to drive cautiously on this narrow and winding roadway, the light-post on the shoulder of the west side, which is decorated in candles, wilting flowers, and blue and white ribbons that flap like flags in the bay breeze, is difficult to miss.  The display serves as a memorial for 17-year-old Steven Bachoon and 16-year-old Christopher Badeo, who were killed on May 20, when their Toyota Corolla crossed over the double yellow line and collided with an oncoming Kia Minivan.

As an island of concrete in a sea of tall grass, this isolated portion of Brookville Boulevard is a rarity for the five-borough metropolis.   Besides being a unique plot of land, the area provides a source of political tension, especially after the recent accident.

The District 31 City Council member, James Sanders Jr., has made an issue out of the road’s condition saying that it should be widened with divider installed.  The Council member’s chief of staff, Donovan Richards, said that widening the roadway would eliminate the existing danger and help prevent future accidents.

However, widening the road “would be no easy task,” said Richard Hellenbrecht, chairman of Queens Community Board 13, which presides over 13 square miles of eastern Queens on the border of Nassau County.  Hellenbrecht explained that his community board is pushing for the city to redo tight and winding sections of Little Neck Parkway, but does not anticipate the work being completed for 10 to 15 years. And that is without factoring in the wetlands.

The disputed portion of Brookville Boulevard, which lies between 149th Avenue and Rockaway Boulevard, is flanked by the remnants of a once-vast Jamaica Bay ecosystem. Nearly 80 percent of that system has been destroyed by residential and commercial development. Amid the seeming tranquility of the wetlands, a closer look reveals broken bottles of Captain Morgan’s rum and paper cups with images of golden arches and the red-headed Wendy’s logo.  The sound fluctuates between melodic birdcalls and the reverberating roar of low flying jets, and the smell is a mixture of ocean air and noxious gasoline. (See a slideshow of images from Snake Road.)

Aside from making for decent kayaking and bird watching, Idlewild is a convenient hangout for birds on the Atlantic Flyway, a migratory bird route following the Atlantic coast from Canada down to Mexico — this wetland helps prevent erosion and runoff pollution.  Barbara Brown, the chairwoman of the Eastern Queens Alliance, a civic association that seeks to cultivate and protect the park, explains that Idlewild Park serves as a natural sponge, providing flood protection by trapping and slowly releasing surface-water.  For nearby communities like Springfield Gardens and Rosedale that have flooded so extensively in the past  they have been declared federal disaster areas, a natural sponge is something to be preserved, Brown says.

As traffic in the area has become heavier in recent years, however, the hairpin road has become even more problematic.  Brookville Boulevard begins in the north, in Laurelton, and intersects the Belt Parkway and other main roads like Merrick Boulevard.  At its southern end, it feeds into Rockaway Boulevard, linking residential Queens and major highways with Five Towns and the beach communities and shopping malls of the Rockaways.  As the sole conduit over the marsh, the twisting section of Brookville Boulevard between 149th Avenue and Rockaway Boulevard has become a commuting artery.   The artery is closed about once a month during high tides when water levels are particularly high as the wetlands submerge the roadway.

Even though Snake Road sits on Idlewild wetland, the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) can fill a pothole on it, but a provision ofthe Federal Clean Water Act prevents any further work or construction without a permit from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).  In order to obtain such a permit, the project sponsor must complete an application to the DEC justifying the project as “reasonable and necessary.”  The project sponsor must also reveal that it has explored alternative solutions and that no viable alternative to the proposed project exists that would avoid or minimize adverse impacts on the wetland.

Thomas Panzone from the DEC’s Division of Public Affairs said that additionally, a project such as a widening and improvement of Snake Road would probably require a public comment period so that members of the public could review the proposal and weigh in on the DEC’s decision. If approval were granted, the project would have to be adequately funded. While a formal application has yet to be submitted from  City Council member Sanders’ office, Richards, the chief of staff, recently met with the Department of Transportation to begin the process of applying for a permit to widen the roadway. Richards could not be reached for comment on the outcome of the meeting.

Many commuters along  Snake Road said they are aware of the accident involving the teenagers, but some of them echo the sentiment that the danger lies not strictly in the condition of the road, but rather in the carelessness of the drivers.  A Q113 bus driver, Kirkland Meghie, said that he’s never had a problem with Snake Road, even with his hefty bus. “But there is no railing in most places,” he said. “You get drivers at night who are drunk, they are going to slip off.”  The Mastronardi brothers, Anthony and Mario, owners of nearby Mastro Concrete, agree that there should be railings.  Their drivers frequently skid off the road, including one whose rig recently had to be towed out of the mud.  A week after the May 20 accident occurred, another, less severe-crash occurred  at the intersection of Brookville Boulevard and Rockaway Boulevard.  Still, Detective Javoda Cooper of the community affairs department at the105th police precinct said that there have not been an abnormal number of accidents on that road.  The investigation into the circumstances surrounding the accident is still ongoing.

City Council member Sanders insists that the recent deadly accident could have been avoided if the city had acted to widen the street as he had proposed.  “I understand it’s a wetland, and it’s our obligation to protect nature,” he said, “but human beings are nature, too.”

While the two sides argue their plans for Snake Road, currently the one speed limit sign posted on the southbound side is broken in half and reads “5,” instead of 25, the one speed limit sign on the north side is not visible where Snake Road begins, and a sign warning motorists of a side road sits on the ground. Still clinging to a post along Brookville Boulevard is a poster with a picture of Steven Bachoon, and the words “RIP Young Star.”

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