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These Wetlands Helped Stop Flooding From Sandy. Now a BJ’s May Move In.

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It is an unlikely centerpiece for a save-the-wetlands campaign: a patch of woods and swamps surrounded by strip malls and service roads on the densely populated, industrial northern shore of Staten Island.

To nearby residents fighting to preserve it, the parcel is a bulwark against disaster. The 28 acres are part of a network of wetlands that in 2012 helped protect the area from the deadliest floods of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated New York City and killed 43 residents, more than half of them in Staten Island.

But the land’s developer has a different vision: a giant BJ’s Wholesale Club. His company has said the project will create at least 200 local jobs, protect 11 acres of the wetlands and include rain gardens and holding tanks to curb flooding.

State and city authorities agree, having approved plans for the membership-only warehouse club chain and an 800-car parking lot on the site, part of the Graniteville Swamp. The decision has set off new wrangling over how best to handle development on Staten Island’s diverse, working-class northern tip.

ImageGabriella Velardi-Ward, who lives in Staten Island’s Mariners Harbor neighborhood, leads a local group that is challenging the project.
Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

The case also points to potential challenges for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who have positioned themselves as national climate leaders and pushed back against the Trump administration’s gutting of environmental rules. They have staked out ambitious climate goals — a state law requires net carbon neutrality by 2050 — but do not always have the tools to make local decisions line up with big-picture intentions.

The project’s supporters — including the Staten Island borough president, James S. Oddo, and the area’s City Council representative, Debi Rose — said in recent interviews that they shared concerns about building on natural areas. But they contend that the developer had a legal right to build — a view that opponents dispute — so their only way to protect the wetlands was to support his plan in exchange for measures to reduce ecological damage.

“In a perfect world, I would love for that place to remain as it is,” said Ms. Rose, a Democrat who, like Mr. Oddo, backed a special permit required to build a store as large as a BJ’s, despite objections from the local community board. “But it was going to be developed. I did the best I could to negotiate more responsible development.”

Mr. Oddo, a Republican, said: “I did emotionally understand the community’s arguments — I lived though Sandy. But legally, where would I stand if I wanted to oppose it?”

The city’s Department of Planning and the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation both agreed that the proposal was better for the environment, and the community, than if the developer, Charles Alpert, had built unchecked.

Wetlands regulation, which got underway in the 1970s, has not prevented heavy development in this section of Staten Island. The BJ’s would be the latest of the warehouses, housing developments and big-box stores that have proliferated around the Graniteville Swamp, a mix of freshwater and tidal wetlands that flow into Old Place Creek and out to the Arthur Kill.

On the site, on South Avenue next to a multiplex cinema, tall trees shade fallen logs and rotting leaves. Ferns sprout amid bits of trash and broken machinery. Dark watermarks on tree trunks show where knee-deep vernal pools — seasonal freshwater wetlands — fill up in springtime, nurturing salamanders and frogs. One end slopes to a tidal marsh fringed with rushes.

The Alpert family bought the land in two pieces, in 1977 and 1984, just before the state started mapping wetlands and adjacent areas where development would be restricted. It fought for years to keep their land off those maps.

Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

In 2012 came an agreement: The owners agreed to not build residential blocks and to seek a wetlands permit, and the conservation department designated less of the property as protected areas than its experts had initially recommended.

Two months later, Sandy hit.

In 2017, the local community board rejected the BJ’s plan, citing concerns about flooding and traffic. It was overruled by Mr. Oddo, planning officials and the City Council. A Hail-Mary search for endangered mud turtles, which would have held up the development, came up empty. Over a thousand people sent comments to the conservation department, nearly all opposing the project.

The department, in approving the ruling, noted that climate concerns fell outside the scope of its powers.

Ms. Velardi-Ward’s group, the Staten Island Coalition for Wetlands and Forests, is now suing to force the conservation department to redo its assessment. It is arguing that the right to build on the land was never guaranteed, and that regulators should have compared the project’s impact with unbuilt land — not a hypothetical, less environmentally sensitive development.

The conservation department declined to comment, citing the lawsuit. Mitchell Korbey, a lawyer for the holding company incorporated by Mr. Alpert, which owns the land, said the project would proceed and bring well-paid jobs and convenient shopping.

The case has wider significance for some elected officials and groups like the Waterfront Alliance and the Natural Areas Conservancy, which are pushing for more coordinated planning across the New York region in the face of climate change. As in many parts of the country, land-use decisions in the area fall to municipalities; they are typically hashed out according to local political-power dynamics and a mix of arcane — and often outdated — zoning and permitting rules.

“We’re acting at cross purposes: preparing for sea-level rise and trying to slow climate change with one set of policies, and taking actions elsewhere that undercut those efforts,” said Elena Conte, deputy director of the Pratt Center for Community Development in Brooklyn.

Some climate and planning experts say the case shows why rules should be updated to reduce the 80,000 acres of U.S. wetlands lost to development annually: Outdated regulatory maps miss wetlands that have migrated, and decades-old rules underestimate wetlands’ value in buffering hurricanes, absorbing storm water runoff and capturing carbon from the air.

New York State law does not protect freshwater wetlands that are smaller than 11 acres, like most of those in cities.

Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

New York’s sweeping climate law requires that in every decision they make, state agencies must consider the impact on the climate. But the rules for weighing that impact have not yet been written, and the Staten Island case predates the law, passed last year.

The law also includes provisions to redress historically disproportionate environmental harm to low-income and Black and Latino neighborhoods, designated as “environmental justice communities.” Northern Staten Island has several such neighborhoods, with some of New York City’s highest asthma rates, according to state and federal data.

“Nothing has been updated to address the climate-change issues our environmental justice communities face,” said Beryl Thurman, who had been a longtime resident of a neighborhood near Mariners Harbor, Port Richmond, where a viral video in 2019 captured a flash flood swamping a city bus.

“You can white-water raft in every downpour,” said Ms. Thurman, who heads a local environmental group. “To turn around and say this wetland or any other wetland is not significant for water retention, it just lacks all practicality, all sense of reason.”

Ms. Rose, the City Council member, said smarter planning rules were needed. Still, Mr. Oddo, the borough president, said, “I prefer to take my chances case by case than give more power to unelected regulators who don’t have Staten Islanders’ interests at heart.”

Gabrielle Dylag, a law student on the residents’ legal team, the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic, blamed outdated regulations and developers’ budgets and clout: “This would never happen in a neighborhood of wealthy or powerful people with resources to fight, not just legally but politically.”

Ms. Velardi-Ward, 73, exhaled as she stepped onto the shady site on a recent day. A woodpecker hammered nearby.

“New York City has come to the end of the land,” she said. “That’s why they’re coming for the wetlands.”

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