By Larry Austin
Island Dispatch Editor
By a 3-2 vote, the Grand Island Town Board voted Monday to tell the state it rejects a plan that would close the West River Parkway to vehicle traffic and turn it into a bike path.
The vote comes less than two weeks after a July 20 public meeting held by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to take input on the West River Connector Trail project. Alternative No. 3 of three Connector Trail plans presented at the July 20 meeting would turn West River Parkway from a 55 mph car-only road into a car-free bike path. The comment period for the plan closed Aug. 3.
During a Monday work session that immediately preceded the regular meeting at 8 p.m., Councilman Mike Madigan moved to reject, not support, the state's proposed bike path option that requires closure of the West River Parkway. His motion further said: "And as part of this rejection, a letter will be sent to the state stating the Town of Grand Island does not and has never supported the closure of West River Parkway as part of the bike path option." His motion received a second from Councilman Ray Billica and was supported by Councilman Chris Aronica in the 3-2 vote. Supervisor Nathan McMurray and Councilwoman Bev Kinney voted no.
The project is a venture with State Parks and the Niagara River Greenway Commission, which is a long-range plan to connect Buffalo to Youngstown with a Greenway trail. Though many residents who live on the West River service road said at the July 20 meeting they support a bike plan, they objected to closure of the parkway.
The arguments in the work session grew heated, especially from the supervisor, who has championed alternative No. 3, the preferred option by the state. He campaigned for the alternative on social media and in print, and spoke at the July 20 public information session on the plan, held at the Grand Viking Theater of Grand Island High School.
As Madigan said, "has never supported" in making the motion, McMurray said "Oh, dear God."
"This is straight '1984' stuff," McMurray said, calling the motion a revisionist history. "You're saying what the history of the town is when we have historical record saying something else."
Madigan said the vote was needed to make the town's position clear to the state, and the issue had to be stated before the Aug. 3 closing of the comment period.
"No one has ever voted to support closing the parkway," Madigan told McMurray.
Madigan added later one of his concerns is "It sounds like the town has taken a position that the town has never taken, and it sounds like somebody has communicated that position to New York state, when the town has never taken that position."
"Mike, I have such power," McMurray sarcastically responded. "I have all this power out there. I'm such a powerful guy that I can go around telling State Parks what to do."
"Why are you getting so upset?" Madigan asked.
"Because it's ridiculous. You're playing politics with a vision that could help the Island," McMurray said.
"You're taking it personal. This is not a personal situation," Madigan said.
"I am taking it personal. We can get something done."
"Why are you taking it personal," Madigan said. "It doesn't make sense."
During approximately a half hour of arguing, Kinney summarized the mood in the conference room when she said, "You guys are exhausting."
Gauging Public Opinion
McMurray told Madigan he was making a mistake and not listening to residents. McMurray said he had heard from residents in such places as Ferry Village and Sandy Beach who support alternative No. 3.
"There's people out there who want access to that waterfront," McMurray told Madigan. "You're speaking to five people on West River Road. I'll make sure that everyone on this Island knows that you were responsible for trying to block this."
Aronica said resident do have access and the state had a previous plan for a bike path that did not include closing the parkway.
"Something changed there," Aronica said.
Billica said it was "way more than five people" in opposition to the plan, reminding McMurray of all the negative comments received during the July 20 meeting.
McMurray said the three opponents were "road-blocking and sandbagging."
McMurray pointed out a previous Town Board voted to support a plan in 2013. That plan changed after two public information meeting at the Nike Base, said Aronica.
"Don't say we approved it," Aronica said of the new plan.
In voting no, Kinney said she hadn't heard of some of the information brought up in the work session, and wanted to wait and see before voting on a motion "before we go ahead and stick our head way out there."
"I'd rather that we be able to negotiate for the best we can," Kinney said.
The board disagreed even on assessing the public's feelings.
McMurray asked his executive assistant Cyndi Montana to describe the opinions received in the supervisor's office. Montana said feedback received through the end of July and passed on to Victor O'Brien of C&S, the consulting engineers for the project, was running about 60-40 in favor of the project, according to O'Brien's tally. Montana said there are a "small amount of very loud people that are getting heard as well," but overall there was more support.
Madigan said in his estimate, "10 to 1, it's been anti." Billica called the feedback he's received "overwhelming" to not close the parkway, and opponents of closing the parkway are not necessarily opposed to a bike path.
Higgins Supports Alternative No. 3
Wednesday, McMurray posted to social media a letter from U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, who represents Grand Island in Congress, to State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey. Higgins wrote, "to convey my strong support for alternative No. 3, the agency's preferred alternative, which would provide the highest quality public access to this important stretch of waterfront and would eliminate redundant and unnecessary asphalt from this waterfront environment."
Higgins noted to Harvey what he called "great strides" made to create waterfront access for the public "centered around pedestrian, bicycle and paddle craft access and other recreational uses."
"While these improvements accrue to the benefit of visitors and the region as a whole, the prime beneficiaries of these enhancements to walkability and livability are persons who live in the immediate vicinity of these improvements," Higgins wrote.
"The decision regarding which alternative to pursue for this project will have generational significance," Higgins said. "To persist with the extant Robert Moses-inspired, car-centric, wasteful and under-utilized infrastructure, as opposed to replacing it with this smarter, greener alternative would be a mistake not soon undone."
In a blog post Tuesday, the day after the meeting, McMurray called the vote "politics as usual."
Admitting that the "impact of this vote is unclear, because we do not have jurisdiction over state land," McMurray called the vote "disappointing, to say the least. After years of resolutions and discussions here we are, again, saying no."