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State bureaucracy ties up opening of LIC boathouse

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Erik Baard says his Long Island City Community Boathouse, which was to open in July, has been delayed indefinitely as he tries to wrangle permission to use a slice of state-controlled waterfront.

The free-lance writer wants access to a floating dock in Gantry Plaza State Park for his non-profit boathouse, which is essentially a series of canoe and kayak storage racks a few blocks away.

Baard said the Long Island City boathouse - like the Downtown Boathouse in Manhattan or Gowanus Dredgers in Brooklyn - would have a simple mission: to get locals into the water.

The public would have free access to the boats, Baard said, and volunteers would conduct river tours and environmental education classes for local children.

The problem is three municipal bodies have a stake in the 2.5-acre park at the end of 48th Street, miring Baard's boathouse application in a quagmire of red tape.

"It's really turning into a stupid, bureaucratic nightmare," Baard said. "I'm just tearing my hair out of my shoulders over this issue."

The Queens West Development Corporation - a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corporation - owns the title to the park, which became the first public waterfront in Queens when it was opened in 1998.

The Department of State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation manages the park, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation owns and operates the floating dock, which a spokeswoman said is the only legal place in Gantry Plaza to launch a boat.

Baard said Queens West was at first excited about the boathouse, granting him tentative permission to launch from the dock only to rescind the offer after discussions with the city Parks Department, which is responsible for issuing boathouse licenses.

Gantry Plaza park manager William Ledwitz said he liked the idea of a kayak and canoe launch in the park, but he had safety concerns and first had to clear the idea with environmental conservation.

He said he was playing "phone tag" with the department and had to yet to get their feedback on using their floating dock.

Environmental Conservation, meanwhile, said it had never heard of the Long Island City Community Boathouse

"To our knowledge no one has made a formal request to use the floating dock at Gantry Plaza State Park," said spokeswoman Gabrielle Done. "The (department) would consider a request to access the dock and discern if such public access is possible."

Back at the Parks Department, Mary Ellen Kris, assistant deputy commissioner for state parks in New York City, said she would do the same.

"The bottom line is we're very interested in looking at this. But we need to sit down and work out the logistics, security," Kris said.

While she said Parks would consider the boathouse, she indicated strong reservations for the project. It would need good insurance, she said, and expert kayak guides. Police or emergency crews in boats supervising groups might also be a good safety precaution, she said.

"These are commercial waterways. They're tidal and have a very swift current," Kris said. "You just don't lightly put people out there on a body of water like that."

Baard said he would not. The boathouse, which has 18 donated lifejackets, will be staffed by experienced volunteers. Boaters navigate the East River all the time, he said. All it requires is a little common sense and experience.

"This is not white water," Baard said.

He chalks up the Parks Department's reticence to fear and tradition. The Queens waterfront has been virtually closed off to the public for a century, he said, fostering generations that have never swam in open water.

"(They) treat the water like a gorilla: something to be viewed behind a wall or a fence," Baard said.

Reach reporter Matthew Monks by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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