Fort Greene

FOIL fight over Fort Greene Park tree removal

April 5, 2019 Lore Croghan
There’s a legal battle over a redacted report about a redesign of Fort Greene Park. Rendering via the Landmarks Preservation Commission

The Parks Department doesn’t have to give activists a full report about its redesign of Fort Greene Park — or produce a consultant’s contract to prove the agency is exempt from Freedom of Information Law obligations, a city attorney argued in an appeals court hearing on Thursday.

The case of the Friends of Fort Greene Park versus the Parks Department hinges on whether the agency hired Nancy Owens Studio, a landscape architecture firm, as a consultant.

Elina Druker, a city Law Department attorney, told a New York State appellate court that Nancy Owens Studio acted as a Parks Department consultant when writing a report about the greenspace that calls for the removal of 58 mature trees.

The judges repeatedly asked, “Where is the contractual agreement?” But Druker insisted other documents in the case file provide proof the studio acted as a consultant.

The Friends of Fort Greene Park had requested the studio’s report through the Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, and sued the Parks Department after receiving a heavily redacted version of it.

FOIL is a state law that spells out the procedures for the release of state and local government records requested by members of the public. The law has an exemption, however, that protects outside consultants’ work from public disclosure if city agencies use the materials to inform their decision-making.

Environmental harm feared

Attorney Michael Gruen represented the Friends of Fort Greene Park at the Thursday appeals hearing.

The Parks Department’s appeal challenges an October 2018 ruling by New York Supreme Court Justice Arlene Bluth that the Parks Department should give Friends of Fort Greene Park an uncensored version of the report about the $10.5 million park redesign.

The redesign also involves the creation of a wide paved plaza near the park’s famed Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument.

Fort Greene Park’s makeover is a Parks Without Borders project. The city program is meant to make parks more accessible to people with limited mobility. In 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio called the program an “innovative approach to integrating our parks more seamlessly into the fabric of the city.”

What’s at stake

The appellate division is expected to issue a ruling in the coming weeks.

A decision in the Parks Department’s favor could discourage other people from suing the government over its handling of FOIL requests.

A decision in favor of Friends of Fort Greene Park would give the group an uncensored report about the park redesign, which is “a blueprint for environmental mayhem,” Gruen contended in a brief.

The removal of 58 trees would reduce arboreal absorption of air pollution in Fort Greene Park, he wrote. And a Parks Department plan to remove earthen mounds that are longtime landscape features would cut back the root structures of nearby trees and kill them, he added.

The Sierra Club is also suing the Parks Department

“We continue to ask, ‘What is the Parks Department hiding?’” Fort Greene resident Lucy Koteen told the Brooklyn Eagle after the hearing.

“I would hold that any taxpayer-funded report should be on the Parks Department’s website,” said Koteen, who was a co-plaintiff in the Friends of Fort Greene Park’s suit.

“The fact we had to FOIL it in the first place shows this city agency’s lack of transparency,” she added.

The information in an unredacted report might prove useful in a New York Supreme Court lawsuit the Friends of Fort Greene Park recently filed jointly with the Sierra Club and the City Club of New York.

In this suit, the groups contend the Parks Department was legally required to do an environmental review to determine the possible adverse effects of tree removal and draft an environmental impact statement.

Landmarked Fort Greene Park has a storied history. Pioneering landscape architecture firm Olmsted and Vaux designed it in the 1860s. In the early 1900s, famous McKim Mead & White carried out a partial redesign.

The was created at the behest of poet and former Brooklyn Eagle editor Walt Whitman.

Follow Brooklyn Eagle reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.