By Andrew Fraley
Caitlin Fisher-Reid is a PhD student at Stony Brook in the department of Ecology & Evolution. The subject of her dissertation research has been the behavior of indigenous salamanders on Long Island, from the red variety in the west near Oyster Bay, to the black variety in the east near the Pine Barrens. Right in front of the Main Entrance to the University, in an 11-acre stretch of forest, is a rare place where both varieties are numerous and active. “It’s one of my best sites,” she said. Unfortunately, all of that will be destroyed with the planned construction of the new hotel in that forest.
The controversy surrounding the plans for a hotel on campus have attracted a much larger audience than the University Senate had originally anticipated. The Town Hall meeting held Friday, December 4, had more attendees than could fit in the originally scheduled SAC 302. The SAC auditorium held over 150 members of the university and surrounding community, many of them outspoken in their opinion on the new Hotel’s plans.
The Town Hall meeting, moderated by Michael Schwartz, President of the University Senate, consisted of a debate between Barbara Chernow, Vice President of Facilities & Services, and Malcolm Bowman, a Professor in the School of Atmospheric and Marine Sciences and president of the Stony Brook Environmental Conservancy, followed by comments and questions from the audience.
The primary issue at stake is the tract of land on which the hotel is set to be built. The 11 acre stretch of forest in front of the main entrance is a small part of the Green Belt, the area of forest surrounding the university that acts as a buffer it from the surrounding community. It is by no means an insignificant part of the green belt, however. In addition to creating a buffer, the forest enforces Nicolls Road’s tradition as a non-commercial area. “It was designed that way,” explained Bowman. “From Highway 25A to Route 347, there are places of worship, of school administration, a firehouse, but there are no commercial properties.”
The forest acts as an educational area for biology undergraduates as well. Fisher-Reid, who also teaches biology undergrads, remarked that students are surprised that she works so locally. “ I’m able to include more undergrads in my research because I have a campus field site,” she said. “Many students tell me that they didn’t even know salamanders were on Long Island, let alone Stony Brook.” The area is also used by other biology labs, such as BIO 352. Marvin O’Neal, course director for the Biology Department, urged the Administration to reevaluate their priorities. “I encourage Stony Brook to invest our current resources into educating our students and supporting the teaching mission of our institution,” O’Neal said.
Other professors have attributed this controversy to the administration, their priorities and practices. Jeffery Levinton, distinguished Professor in the Ecology & Evolution department, claimed that this has been a problem since the previous administration. “Over the past 15 years, with regards to sustainability, landscape considerations, and even ecology education on campus, our administration has ignored two basic actions: ask and listen,” explained Levinton. Bowman and others have also been actively involved with preserving that area and the rest of the Green Belt for nearly 10 years. A motion passed by the University Senate in 2001, denotes the forests around campus as University Living Treasures, and resolves that the University President must comply with the State Environment Quality Review Act. SEQRA requires an environmental impact assessment before a state agency can proceed with any planned projects or activities. Chernow asserted that the university has so far complied with SEQRA, and will continue to do so.
Construction has yet to be undertaken until SEQRA is complete, but Chernow has stated that ground tests need to be made beforehand. Bowman, however, began and ended his presentation with the claim that no action may be taken before the SEQRA is complete. According to SEQRA’s rules and regulations, “A project sponsor may not commence any physical alteration related to an action until the provisions of SEQRA have been complied with.”
Other concerns include the environmental impact to the area, and Stony Brook’s perceived commitment to sustainability. Chernow asserted that the footprint to the area will be minimal. Only 3.7 acres of the 11 are to be used for the hotel. The rest will be kept to maintain the buffer, which will be a minimum of 175 feet from Nicolls Road. Several Biology and Ecology professors insisted that the impact would be greater than just the amount of forest cleared. “It’s not just the footprint that matters…it’s the spillover,” described Jeffrey Levinton. “If you would have asked a single ecologist on campus we would have told you, it’s not just a spot you can clear out that has the effect, but it’s the effect of noise pollution and disturbance of the things surrounding it.”
Others brought up the questionable action of the university in promoting itself as a sustainable university—by even going so far as to open an sustainable campus at Southampton—but not acting on it. Michelle Pizer, a senior at Stony Brook and president of the Environmental Club on campus, was the first of several students to express concerns about the university’s prerogatives. “As a school that claims to be part of the solution, why are we contributing to the problem?” Pizer asked. “Stony Brook should stop thinking green…and really act green.” Levinton also mentioned the hypocrisy involved with Stony Brook and Southampton. “Maybe Southapmton will be Dorian Gray, and we will be the portrait that will gradually deteriorate,” he quipped.
Not every speaker spoke out against the plans, however. Representatives and heads of the University Hospital, the Long Island State Veteran’s Home, the sports department, and the Center for Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology all spoke of the hotel’s necessity for visitors to the campus. Even those against it all recognized the hotel’s importance to the University, given the current economic crisis. The hastiness with which the plan has proceeded and the unfortunate location are the complaints brought up by those who spoke out against it. Several alternatives have been explored by members of the University Senate and the Stony Brook Environmental Conservancy. Some of these alternative locations were even proposed by a few speakers, including several parking lots around campus, with displaced parking being made up for with a new parking garage or underground parking. Levinton, to much applause from the audience, proposed building the hotel near the train station, to encourage the use of mass transit.
The location, however, is where the ultimate problem lies. The ground lease, acquired 20 years ago by the university, specifies the 11-acre woods. Both Chernow and University President Stanley have asserted that it would be virtually impossible. The current climate of the state legislature, according to Chernow, would never allow for a new ground lease somewhere else. Bowman, on the other hand, insisted that, according to Senator Kenneth LaValle, instead of acquiring a new ground lease, the current ground lease could be relocated with relative ease. Any further action should be held off until all the options have been sufficiently explored, according to Bowman.
“If we walk away from this developer, what we are saying is there is not going to be a hotel,” Chernow said. “Because they’re not going to wait many many years after we have to wait many many years for a new ground lease.” Stanley has said that he remains committed to moving forward with the project. Bowman and others remain committed to convincing them that there are feasible and suitable alternatives, and have sent a letter signed by 43 professors sent to the president.
In the meantime, the red and black Salamanders await their fate.