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What’s All This Business with the Berms?

By Barbara Kay

“Here’s to hoping the winding rocky waters of Blind Brook, dotted with red and orange around this time every year, will not require any photos taken by me, and can instead be experienced firsthand through the next century and beyond by generations of students looking for a moment of tranquility,” wrote Frampton in his letter to Peña.

The Blind Brook (Photo by Barbara Kay)

A town hall meeting was held to discuss the potential berms that would be built on the east route of campus.

The discussion concerning the watershed dates back to 1979, but the current conversation arose from Hurricane Ida. Ida occurred on Sept. 1 and 2, 2021, leaving five residents of Rye Brook dead, and countless other residents’ homes flooded. In an attempt to minimize damage caused by severe storms like Ida, Ramboll [an engineering consultant] proposed berms, which defines as “ridges that help to regulate water,” to be built on the Purchase College campus.

Five berms would be built along the east loop of campus– three behind the gym and two more downstream along the Doral Property. Concerns from Purchase community members, including students, faculty, and alum, have arisen given the deforestation that would occur for their construction.

Leo Frampton, a 2020 environmental studies graduate who currently oversees six acres of public forest on Governor's Island, wrote a letter to President Milagros Peña to express his disgruntled state with the project.

“A house can be built in less than a year, a [one] hundred-year-old forest cannot. In fact, it cannot be ‘built’ at all,” Frampton wrote. “In 2022, due to human interference, a forest in Westchester county must go through incredible hurdles to reach maturity– saplings must persist through severe conditions exacerbated by climate change, including intense wind storms and scorching summer droughts such as the one which occurred this past season.”

Dr. Allyson Jackson, an environmental studies professor and chair of SAOC [Sustainability Advisory and Outreach Committee], declared her bias on the topic before beginning the discussion. According to the PowerPoint constructed by Jackson, 50 to 100 ft. of forest would be cut down.

“I don’t personally believe that the berms are the best option for this campus,” Jackson stated at the Nov. 16 town hall.

“Trees would definitely need to be removed where the berms would be located, but the long-term effects of the remaining forest and habitat, although probable to some extent, are unknown,” said Michael Kopas, senior director of facilities and capital planning.“Water would back up behind the berms during heavy to severe weather events only, which using history as a guide, could be 1 to 3 times per year. We are told by the engineering firm that the water would then drain within 48 hours.”

The forest that is now Broadview (Photo by Leo Frampton April 2019)

This plan undermines Broadview's environmental impact statement, which reads that 80 acres of “forever wild," “the highest available protection for land in the United States” according to Northeast Wilderness Trust, must be preserved. Although, legislatively, it is not specified where these 80 acres have to be. The 80 acres in question were chosen because of the 100-year-old forest and rare wetlands that reside there.

Students are concerned with further deforestation, following the current construction of Broadview.

Broadview is “a residential learning community for adults 62 years and older, housed on our college campus,” as stated on the Purchase website.

While 40 acres were cut down for its construction, native plants, which hadn’t been in Broadview's area previously, were planted in the trees' place. The Blind Brook berms would not be built along the west loop, where Broadview resides, but on the east loop.

“The only connection between Broadview and the berm proposal is the designation of 80 acres as ‘forever wild’ which originated from the Broadview approval,” said Kopas. “The 80 acres is within the area that the berms are being proposed by the City of Rye.”

Frustration has been expressed by the student body, who petitioned in opposition to the berms. The petition, which as of Nov. 22 had 467 signatures as well an additional 547 signatures from a physical petition that was signed by tuition-paying students only on Election Day.

The PSGA [Purchase Student Government Association] senate passed a resolution opposing the berms on Nov. 9. SAOC will make the decision as to whether or not to pass its own resolution by the end of the Fall 2022 semester, and bring the potential resolution to the College Senate, according to the PSGA Sustainability Coordinator, Grace Castle, a senior theater and performance and literature major.

“The proposed berms on the Blind Brook will result in the loss of a contiguous 100-year-old floodplain forest, disruption of important forested wetlands, and impairment of stream connectivity along the Blind Brook,” the PSGA resolution stated. “SUNY Purchase designated the project area as part of an agreed-upon ‘forever wild’ forest in the Broadview Environmental Impact Statement.”

“The PSGA Senate officially opposes any action from SUNY Purchase that would support the implementation of the Blind Brook Berms,” the resolution continued. “The PSGA Senate officially opposes any action from SUNY Purchase that would support the pursuit of funds dedicated to studying the feasibility of their construction or design.”

According to Dr. Jackson’s PowerPoint, Purchase is not a major contributor to the floods. The berms would, during a 100-year-old storm like Ida, only save one to four inches of rain, according to Ramboll’s study of alternative measures. The berms would result in the century-old trees being submerged in water for 48 to 72 hours.

Dr. Allyson Jackson speaking at the Nov. 16 town hall (Photo by Tess Walsh)

During the town hall meeting, attendees were given the chance to air their grievances.

Daniel Karpf, a junior in the music conservatory, said, “I’m from Queens, a big reason I chose to come from Purchase was because it didn’t feel like home.”

“I love the forest… Having a place to decompress that wasn’t my dorm, that allowed me to be outside… was needed,” he continued.

On Oct. 10, Chris Bradbury, Rye Brook Village administrator, sent an email to Rye Brook residents stating, “Due to minimal impacts of the project on Purchase College (in terms of maintaining the wooded buffer and using the wooded unimproved area for temporary water storage), Purchase College is supportive of the grant application at this time (subject to further approvals).”

Peña sent an email to the campus disagreeing with Bradbury's email. On Oct. 27 she wrote, “As we are still hoping for a more sustainable solution, we are not signing onto the towns of Rye Brook and Rye's grant application to FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] with a letter of support at this time.”

“We remain committed to advocating for other solutions that would do less damage to the campus. At the same time, we also acknowledge our responsibility to protect the lives and communities surrounding us,” Peña’s email continued. Peña reiterated this sentiment at the town hall.

Uri Sarig presenting an information PowerPoint on Nov. 3 in the Stood (Photo by Robyn Graygor)

A meeting for students was held on Nov. 3 by Uri Sarig, senior art history major, and Robyn Graygor, sophomore environmental studies and journalism major. The presentation was an opportunity for students to learn about the project, and ask any preliminary questions they may have had. The meeting resulted in the creation of the Instagram account @opposepurchberms and the petition that was previously mentioned.

“Do we want to build berms or keep letting homes be destroyed?” stated Sarig. “It’s not one or the other.”

Kopas agreed with Sarig’s statement.

“How can we help our neighbors?” asked Kopas, whose own home was damaged during Ida, at the town hall meeting. “The solution doesn’t have to be berms.”

The 33 alternative options from the Ramboll study (Photo via Dr. Jackson's PowerPoint)

Ramboll complied 33 alternative options to the berms, but the berms are the cheapest option, to the Purchase community’s understanding, costing an “estimated $7 to $13 mill. in total,” stated Bradbury’s email. The berms would be partially paid for by FEMA.

While no decisions have been made yet, discussions continue on Nov. 30 at 1:30 during an open Zoom meeting with Rye and Rye Brook administrators, and on Dec. 14 at noon during the last SAOC meeting.



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