Lawrence schools seawall idea raises ire of Cedarhurst residents


Homeowners in Cedarhurst village, including members of the board of trustees, are seeking details about the measures implemented by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to facilitate the construction of a seawall at Lawrence High School.

The seawall would surround the high school campus on Reilly Road, to safeguard the property from the impacts of future severe weather events and avoid a repeat of the damage the building sustained in Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

The district applied for funding from FEMA after Sandy, when then President Barack Obama declared parts of the northeast a major disaster area. The estimated cost of the seawall project is $75 million, and the bulk of the funding would come from FEMA, Lawrence Board of Education President Murray Foreman has said.

Though the seawall is expected to protect the high school campus from a storm-swollen Mott’s Creek, which flooded the building during Sandy, corroding electrical wires and necessitating the replacement of boilers, village board trustees are upset with what they said was a lack of transparency from the school district about the project and the environmental assessment that it conducted.

“While we appreciate the efforts to mitigate future tidal surges and flooding, there are concerns within the community, especially among the residents of the Village of Cedarhurst,” Ari Brown, who serves in the dual roles of deputy mayor and as an assemblyman representing a portion of the area, said in a news release. “Lawrence High School sits within a residential zone, and the construction of the seawall raises apprehensions about potential adverse effects on the neighboring homes.”

The 216-page environmental assessment, which is available to the public at the Peninsula Public Library, in Lawrence, details a variety of environmental factors and potential impacts of the project.

It includes evaluations of the local topography; soil, air and water quality; wetlands, floodplains and coastal resources, as well as information on threatened and endangered species — but no information on the seawall’s potential impact on residents and residential housing.

“It is crucial to ensure the measures taken to protect the school do not inadvertently redirect seawater and create new challenges for the residents,” Brown wrote.

Those concerns were raised during a village board meeting on Feb. 5, when residents also expressed their frustration with the lack of transparency from the school district.

“The real question is, what’s the district’s plan for this property?” asked Francine Sharabi, who lives near the high school. “When you do something like this, isn’t this supposed to be for the good of the community? The kids that live in the community that are students of that school will end up being displaced. Their homes will be flooded, as we were all displaced during Hurricane Sandy.”

Ensuring that the project follows federal requirements, including the National Environmental Policy Act, FEMA published its assessment and is now in a public comment period. The original deadline for any feedback was Feb. 9, but due to the level of interest in the project, it was extended to March. 9.

Brown requested that FEMA officials hold a public hearing focusing on their residents concerns about the project, according to an email thread that included the Herald. FEMA officials responded that it is the school district’s responsibility to hold a hearing.

Cedarhurst residents and village board members had planned to attend a Lawrence school board meeting scheduled for Monday, but the meeting was canceled. The next meeting is scheduled for March 18 — nine days after FEMA’s public comment period ends.

Foreman said that the board was unable to reach a quorum for a meeting on Monday, denying that its cancellation had anything to do with the controversy surrounding the seawall project.

“Currently, there is a comment period open, and we have put forth a complete data room with complete details of the project,” Foreman said. “Everybody has full access regarding the project, and we await community comments, and we will respond.”

Comments can be mailed to Federal Emergency Management Agency, Region 2, Environmental Planning and Historic Preservation, 26 Federal Plaza, Suit 1802, New York, NY 10278.

Cedarhurst Mayor Benjamin Weinstock said that he and the village board submitted comments ahead of the original Feb. 9 deadline. With the new deadline, the board will submit additional comments, he added.

“This could be an extravagant waste of $75 million of taxpayer money,” Weinstock said, “because they mentioned on Page 2 of the environmental report that the Army Corps of Engineers is working on a project that will keep the area within Jamaica Bay free from flooding.”

Weinstock was referring to a proposed seawall along Doxey Creek, including the southwest edge of the high school property, to reduce flooding in coastal neighborhoods in Jamaica, Queens, and surrounding tributaries. He said that project would be the best fit for the community.

“In order to maximize flood protection and structural compatibility, the Subrecipient is currently in discussion with USACE to determine how the USACE Cedarhurst-Lawrence project and the Proposed Action at LWA will be integrated,” FEMA’s environmental assessment stated.
“Somehow, (USACE) is figuring out a way to prevent the area from flooding, or possibly something,” Weinstock added, “and if they do that, you don’t need to spend $75 million to protect the school. It would already be protected.”

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