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Editorial: Tell Us More

In all our years of reporting on capital projects, bond issues and big plans for the community, we have never attended such a poorly run, chaotic and disturbing public meeting as we experienced on Aug. 9 at the Great Neck Library. It was a shame to end this phase of the planning for a renovated Main on such a note because in truth, board members have spent countless, volunteer hours on the project over the last few years. We do not question their intentions to present the best possible project to the community for consideration. We do, however, question the process.

Throughout the meeting, members of the public kept pleading for the board members and consultants to use the microphones. There was no order or decorum to the meeting. This lack of structure added to the chaos as residents were not reassured that at least their questions would be heard.

We received a budget summary a few hours prior to the meeting, but the public did not see the document until they arrived. It was printed in such a small font that parts of it were unintelligible. The board members had enlarged versions that were at least readable. Also, the detailed budget, which amounted to a few pages, was not available to the public at all. Making it available would have clarified many issues and questions that arose. Even now, two weeks later there is no construction budgetary information on the library’s website. A discussion of the new estimates for a construction budget deserved at least one stand-alone meeting and an orderly presentation.

The options or add alternatives, which had been presented to the board in 2009, were for the most part environmental systems for conserving water and energy. They were complex matters which required some research, good explanations and rational discussions. Obviously, little research had been done as the staff and board were unaware that geo-thermal systems are not allowed by the Water Authority of Great Neck North due to the fact that such installations are unregulated and have the potential for contaminating the aquifer. The water-saving technologies, a green roof and retention system for capturing rainwater for irrigation, were dismissed out-of-hand when the business manager informed the board that water bills for the current library were not too expensive. Now. What water rates will be in the future are unknown.

A public discussion of the alternatives in a stand-alone meeting prior to last week’s meeting would have been an educational opportunity in keeping with the mission of a library, to promote learning. Further, estimates for the cost of various options for bird-friendly windows should have been known by last week’s meeting. This topic came up at the Town’s site review meeting on July 19. There should have been an estimate on the cost of a sloped floor for the community room too. Once a bonding number has been established, there is no going back.

We understand that board members have been told by the construction management firm that bids for construction in this economy are coming in lower than estimated and that they are hoping that ultimately the projected costs will, in fact, be lower...perhaps making it possible to add some “wish list” items to the project.

All along we have thought that a LEED certification might be a good way to ensure that a new building would be built using the best and brightest innovations for a building that would be efficient to operate with water and energy saving technologies and would also be the healthiest for staff and patrons with non-toxic paints, finishes, carpets and so forth.  LEED is an evolving system that is annually being upgraded to reflect new advances in knowledge, but it is not an end-all, be-all.

In fact, there is a serious debate going on regarding how healthy for humans LEED certified buildings actually are. A study released in 2010 by Dr. John Wargo, professor of Risk Analysis and Environmental Policy at Yale University summarized the study writing, “Although the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification program has effectively encouraged energy efficiency in buildings, tighter buildings often concentrate chemicals released from building materials, cleaning supplies, fuel combustion, pesticides and other hazardous substances.”

Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York reviewed the report and commented, “The authors argue on the basis of carefully assembled scientific data that LEED needs to be amended to better account for the potential health hazards of the toxic chemicals used in modern building materials. Energy efficiency and sustainability are laudable goals and LEED has done much to advance them. But health is important, too, and now it needs to receive careful consideration in building design.”

We would not consider it a “green” building unless non-toxic materials are used and there are interchanges for fresh air, no matter what the LEED rating would be. (The board voted down operable skylights that would have increased fresh air circulation.)

Currently, bird-friendly windows only receive one point under the LEED grading system, but the Green Building Council will be reviewing new guidelines (and points) for this issue later in August. Frankly, we would not consider a building with such a large expanse of windows directly facing a migratory watering and feeding haven, Udall’s Pond, truly “green” unless bird-safe windows were installed. If we reject an idea for a product or technology because it only garners one point in the LEED framework, we are missing the spirit of the goal. LEED certification should be much more than a status symbol.

The public will vote on the bond referendum for a renovated, expanded Main library on Oct. 25. There is time for the library board to make a concerted effort to be entirely transparent and give out detailed budgetary information and conduct informational meetings. It is also time for the silent majority of the voters to become more engaged and ask their questions so that they will be well prepared to vote.

This is not the time to be for or against the bond. This is the time to “Tell us more” and take the responsibility to “Learn more.”                              -Carol Frank