Herald Editorial

Cedarhurst residents say, ‘listen to us’


Cedarhurst Village Hall was packed with angry people who wanted answers — and information.

The village board grilled representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as well as the architect for the Lawrence school district. But all three were on the receiving end of a tidal wave of anger from the community over the proposed $75 million seawall that the Lawrence education board approved, with the school district reimbursed through federal funds.

In the ensuing weeks since Cedarhurst first learned about the project, tension has escalated.

At the heart of the matter lies a profound sense of unease and frustration stemming from what many perceive as a lack of transparency and accountability on the part of Lawrence’s board of trustees.

The need for coastal protection is undeniable. It is critical to acknowledge and address what appears to be the legitimate concerns of a community, especially one in area that is this close to Mott’s Creek — and, according to the neighbors who spoke at last week’s public hearing — floods even after a normal rainfall. Forget a Hurricane Sandy-like storm.

Intended to mitigate flooding on the high school campus — the school was shut down for months after Sandy — the proposed seawall has sparked debate and mistrust of government officials, especially the Lawrence board. After Sandy, saltwater from floodwaters eroded electrical wiring and knocked the high school boilers out of commission.

Residents expressed fear the seawall’s construction could have adverse effects on their quality of life, property values, and overall well-being, as it will do nothing to alter the flooding homeowners in the area endure because it just protects the school grounds.

Being that the school district is under the jurisdiction of the state education department, nearly all the community members who spoke at the meeting feel their voices have been sidelined in the decision-making process.

After learning of the plan, Cedarhurst officials — along with other local public officials — called for the school board to hold a public hearing.

A February board meeting was canceled, and although the board president said in a local newspaper that the meeting was not held because the trustees couldn’t field a quorum — the legally required number of people to hold a meeting — many in the community did not believe that.

Mistrust abounds.

Information is a prized commodity in every industry, and sharing information with constituents should be the gold standard for government. School trustees are elected — and have a responsibility — to answer the people they serve. Lawrence’s board earned a failing grade there.

It is imperative the Lawrence education board takes the necessary steps to repair this relationship. The community should be heard — if not at a special public hearing, at least at a regularly scheduled board meeting.

The trustees also might need to explore alternative solutions to strengthen coastal resilience that could be less intrusive, help solve recurring flooding problems with neighbors, and be more sustainable in the long run.

Possible alternatives include green infrastructure, dune restoration, wetland preservation and beach nourishment. Neighbors seemed not opposed to flood mitigation measures.

Instead, they seek a more inclusive and open decision-making process that accounts for their concerns and wants. More than a few people who spoke to the trustees said how the constant flooding has forced them to rebuild their homes multiple times.

The Lawrence board needs to listen. FEMA and the school district’s own architect said the points made would be reviewed. Most likely not all will be implemented, but listening and reviewing is a start.

It is a beginning Lawrence trustees should apply moving forward. The primary job elected officials have is to listen to their constituents.

Within that there needs to be an increased awareness for the need for accountability and transparency — whether the school district is deciding a change in school policy, or considering a large-scale project like a $75 million seawall.