With Friends Like These… Friends of the Sands Point Preserve
A rare and historic tree is rammed repeatedly with a crane after being dismembered by chainsaws to make way for fresh concrete, fencing and a deck (comprised of pressure-treated wood). Dozens more fall victim to chainsaw-toting 20-year-olds who never received federally required safety training and equipment. Wooded thickets and large swaths of forest that had remained untouched for literally centuries are laid to waste, cleared flat. Migratory bird habitats and breeding grounds are leveled. Toxic herbicides are sprayed across windy open fields without warning to the public. Raccoons are hunted, trapped and executed—some left in cages to starve to death before slowly decomposing. Teenagers tear across the hills and paths on golf carts and a four-wheeled All-Terrain Vehicle without helmets. Erosion has been sped up, with mammoth portions of cliff face wiped clean and slowly being sucked into the Long Island Sound. A federally protected plover nest full of eggs is shredded by a lawnmower.
“Welcome to Sands Point Preserve,” grimaces Richard Schary, surveying a plot of freshly decimated landscape abutting the Long Island Sound that now consists of dirt, unearthed roots, limbs and the occasional carved-out stump.
“I am doing my best to hold back tears,” laments his wife Lisa. “This is terrible. This is horrible. Somebody should have to account for this.”
The Scharys—stewards of the 423-acre Massapequa Preserve on the South Shore and outspoken Long Island environmentalists—are but two of a growing number of preservationists, open space advocates, concerned Nassau County residents, nonprofit organizations, current and former county officials, employees and board members outraged and frustrated by the recent and ongoing destructive actions of the Friends of the Sands Point Preserve—a nonprofit installed by former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi to serve as the managers of the 216-acre Guggenheim Estate on the North Shore of Long Island. Founded in 2003, the Friends assumed their current role in January. According to the original agreements that deeded its transfer to the county in the 1970s, the property—which contains four Gold Coast mansions besides its natural treasures—is to remain perpetually preserved. That means keeping the environment true to its most natural state takes the greatest precedence.
A three-month investigation by the Press has revealed that, in many cases, this very principle and intention has been sidestepped, ignored and/or willfully disregarded, as the destruction and questionable practices of the group—witnessed on several visits to the preserve, as well as revealed by internal documents and the aforementioned incidents—are testimony.
Former Friends board members and others within the tightly knit community of Sands Point and Port Washington (many of whom requested anonymity for this story just for that reason, its insularity) paint a picture of a group “that would rather ask for forgiveness than permission,” as one describes, with little regard for laws, regulations, ethics, or even common sense. They and other groups from both North and South Shores demand an immediate moratorium on all current and future Friends projects, their board restructured (it currently consists of three family members), its taxpayer-financed $390,000 contract revoked and the group kicked out.
The Scharys accompanied the Press on a recent tour of the preserve’s grounds with former Friends Vice President Yolanta Zamecka. After voicing concerns to fellow Friends board members about there being three immediate family members on the small 501(c)3’s board, opposing board members’ awarding themselves and their friends no-bid contracts, and speaking out against the misuse of $5 million in capital project funds earmarked for the restoration of a critical sea wall in imminent danger of collapse, she was unceremoniously dismissed, despite having just been elected to a three-year term.
This new clearing, abutting the lapping waters of the Long Island Sound, was our second stop on a recent excursion that documented myriad instances of destruction at the hands of the Friends group. At the very least, some of the activities flirt the boundaries of federal, state and local laws and regulations, say environmentalists, preservationists and those witnessing the fallout firsthand—at their worst they may cross the line.
The Nassau County District Attorney’s Office, Nassau County Health Department and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation have been looking into various aspects of the matter.
“This is exactly the type of thing we spent the last 20 years fighting against,” laments Richard, amid the rubble. “They’ve taken a preserve and are trying to make it a recreational area. It violates everything the preserves of Nassau County stand for. Preserves are supposed to be for the animals, for the plants, for the birds, and we’re just visitors, and now they’ve turned it on its ear.
“This is a violation of preserve ordinances,” he adds. “Absolutely. And for me it’s grounds of termination of the lease. It should be terminated.”
Richard’s fury has added weight—as a member of Nassau’s Hotel and Motel Tax Committee, he actually voted to appropriate the hefty, nearly $400,000 financing from residents’ pockets to the Friends.
“I am extremely angry and insulted and embarrassed that I was one of the people that voted to give this group a dime. When they come back before us for any more money, we get a vote, I will say, ‘Nothing!’” he tells the Press.
Apprised by the Press of the latest destructive acts, Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano’s Chief Deputy County Executive Rob Walker suggests the nonprofit’s days are numbered:
“At the end of the day, come January 1st, I think we are very comfortable in essence of us taking back the maintenance of the facility. We’ve let that be known to the Friends group, not with a lot of fanfare—obviously they weren’t too happy with that. But, we’re prepared to take back the maintenance and operation.”
For those who have been through several meetings with the Mangano administration and a slew of other local politicos about the Friends already, seeing is believing.