By Ann Baker, Friends and Neighbors of Seneca Park – New York
Seneca Park is a beautiful natural setting located in Rochester, New York. The Genesee River, which defines the western edge of the park, empties into Lake Ontario. The park is situated along the top of the Genesee River gorge with a riverine marsh lying at the bottom of the gorge. The park includes an approximately 25-acre site that is being threatened by the expansion of the neighboring Seneca Park Zoo.
The Friends and Neighbors of Seneca Park (FNSP) was founded in 1999. Our slogan is: For Park Land, Public Heritage, and Quality of Life. We joined together for the purpose of protecting this remaining intact piece of Seneca Park, which consists of a picnic grove, a pond, a swale, and woodland areas that contain small wetlands, seeps, and intermittent streams. Under an 80 million dollar plan to expand the Seneca Park Zoo proposed by Monroe County, the majority of the 25-acre site would be turned into a 600-car parking lot extending to the edge of the Genesee River Gorge.
FNSP started its opposition to the destruction of the site with tried and true tactics. Individual members collected 1,800 petition signatures of citizens opposed to park destruction; we posted flyers in neighborhoods around the park with invitations to informational meetings; we started a newsletter with an initial mailing of seventy which has grown to 178; we called and met with County Legislators, spoke at meetings of the Legislature and wrote letters to local papers.
We were lucky to gain essential allies for our project. The board and staff of the Landmark Society of Western New York knew they risked the loss of funding; still they set out to protect the park. The Society convened meetings that resulted in an alliance (Alliance) of eight organizations, including FNSP, opposed to the new plan. This group hired professionals to initiate a public relations blitz. Most notably, they recommended a lawn sign campaign, Save Our Seneca Park (SOS-P!) that was hugely successful. The Zoo/Park controversy became a high profile public debate with anti-expansion voices as numerous and diverse as pro-expansion ones. Eventually even the City of Rochester, which actually owns the park land, challenged the county plan.
The Alliance found a local environmental lawyer who taught us how to participate in the NY State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) process. During this period, FNSP was most effective as the boots on the ground: speaking at SEQR meetings, delivering lawn signs, keeping the issues in the public eye. Working with the Alliance we organized park events to propose less drastic solutions for parking. The Landmark Society handled the bulk of the fundraising. One of their mass mailings brought support from 400 households. Even our smaller FNSP mailing list raised $1,775 dollars.
Acting as lead agency, the Monroe County administration proceeded with the SEQR process in 2000 and 2001. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) prepared by Monroe County engineers either dismissed or failed to mention any threats to wetlands involved in the destruction of the 25-acre site. The DEIS stated that “there will be no proposed project impact to the river or adjacent wetlands,” and that “no significant adverse impacts to terrestrial and aquatic ecology are anticipated” for the project as a whole. Monroe County’s finding in the DEIS that the wetland is below the regulated threshold was based on two walk-throughs. Other observers have disagreed with this finding and have emphasized the wetland’s essential role in controlling erosion in the adjacent gorge.
FNSP applied for and received a GLAHNF grant to retain our own environmental consultants to provide a second opinion about the project’s impact on aquatic habitats. The focus of the consultations was: 1) the wetlands within the proposed project area and, 2) the storm water management plan proposed in the DEIS, which will impact the riverine marsh at the bottom of the gorge, adjacent to the river. Our environmental consultants’ delineation of the area’s wetlands, and review of the storm water management raised very substantial questions about the county’s findings for the DEIS. The information obtained from our environmental consultants increased credibility for our cause, particularly with city decision makers.
In February 2002 the county administration had announced that there was not enough money to embark on even a scaled-down version of the zoo expansion plan. Nevertheless the county sued the City of Rochester in State Supreme Court to stop the designation of the park as a City Landmark. This action was ultimately unsuccessful, however the judge ruled that the park had Landmark status but the city could not enforce Landmark status until 2060, when the park management agreement between city and county will run out. The city has appealed this decision in Appellate Court and the matter is still pending.
That same spring, the county administration won a vote in the county legislature to approve a modified zoo expansion plan as well as to accept the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). The Alliance responded by filing an Article 78 lawsuit to challenge these actions, particularly the county’s environmental findings.
The technical documents resulting from our GLAHNF-funded environmental consultants’ findings were used in this court case. The judge eventually ruled against us but with a judgment so ambiguous-he implied, for instance, that he did not have much authority over the SEQR process-that we have hope for a better decision on appeal. Those papers were sent to the Appellate Division in late August 2003.
Finally, after years of work, the Landmark Society gained additional levels of protection for the park by insuring its inclusion on the State Register of Historic Places in June of 2003, and on the National Register of Historic Places in October of 2003.
The county’s lack of funding has put our struggle for Seneca Park in remission. It is unlikely that state or federal money will ever be available for parking because of the park’s historic status, but private donors may still step forward. In addition to the fact that the zoo has not yet expanded, the positive side of this struggle has been the publicity given to Seneca Park and its designer, Frederick Law Olmsted. Over the course of five years, our community has learned about the concept of an historic, designed landscape. This idea is, of course, counter-intuitive because the beautiful views seem so “natural.” But as the public began to understand what was at stake, park defenders went from being labeled “a small but vocal minority” to enjoying broad based support.
Our recommendations to grassroots activists are: get a reliable ally to provide professional and administrative support, call your legislators, befriend the media, persevere, avoid whining, and apply for a GLAHNF grant.
Friends and Neighbors of Seneca Park
Miriam Ganze, Project Coordinator
11 Covington Rd.
Rochester, NY 14617