Barges That Won’t Budge Leave a Sinking Feeling

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 For several years, barges, some containing tall cranes, others, garbage, and some that have been there for so long, that several trees have been growing out of them—have sat seemingly abandoned and neglected in Vernon Basin, a body of water off Beach 75th Street and the bay. Some have asked what’s up with them. No one has more interest in an answer than the new property owner of the lot that has water rights to this area as the barges have become baggage that won’t seem to budge. Growing frustrated with a lack of action over the removal of the barges, the new owners, Smiley’s One LLC, reached out to The Rockaway Times to bring some awareness to their plight.

John and Johann Smiley, of Smiley One LLC, say they bought the bayside property, 75-00 Amstel Blvd. on March 10, 2020, however they cannot move forward with any plans, as their water access is blocked by several abandoned barges that may potentially create a dangerous situation.

Two barges illegally tied to the outskirts of his property are only attached by weathered rope. John Smiley says he fears that they will either sink or break loose and float down the basin, causing damage to property and vessels in surrounding marinas or blocking further water access. Some of the barges have already sunk. Smiley says one barge directly in front of the property, named “Uncle Leo,” sank at least eight years ago. The barge is blocking water access to his land. “I don’t know how deep it is, but you will wreck your boat if you try to come in here,” Smiley said. The barge also carries a towering crane, which Smiley fears may fall and create further problems. “Those cables are going to rot away and drop that crane into the water. God forbid somebody is there when it happens,” he said.

Smiley is hoping that the barges will be removed before any of these issues arise, but the question of who is responsible for them, has become a headache in itself. According to Smiley, the six barges were owned by a neighboring company called Pile Foundation. After reaching out to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC), Smiley was told that the Pile Foundation, originally owned by Anthony Rivara Sr., is now defunct, yet Rivara's son, Anthony Rivara, Jr.  allegedly took over, changing the name to A Rivara Contracting LLC. The company has allegedly been awarded a contract for a project on the Macombs Dam Bridge in Manhattan, resulting in them moving two of the barges that were blocking Smiley’s water rights, one in September, and another on October 8. However, the old, neglected barges remain. “They are not claiming any responsibility for the other four barges,” Smiley said. “If you have a stolen car in front of your house, you call 311, they come down, sanitation puts a sticker on it and they tow it away within a few days. What do you do here?” Smiley asked.

Smiley says he has reached out to just about everyone for assistance in the matter, but to no avail. “The Coast Guard and the New York State DEC are both aware of the situation with the barges and refuse to do anything about them,” Smiley alleged. “The Coast Guard is claiming if there is no immediate threat or emergency, then it is not in their jurisdiction. The NYS DEC was also notified and they claim they are looking into the matter. The DEC knew about the barge with the crane, when it initially sank close to eight years ago, and did nothing about it.”

 Smiley says he has also reached out to every local elected official, with little response. “Rep. Meeks responded and someone was supposed to contact me, but never did. The councilman pushed me off on him. The only person that came out to see what was going on was a woman from Senator Sanders’ office, who took pictures and said she would get back to me, but I haven’t heard anything,” Smiley said. “Nobody cares.”

The Rockaway Times reached out to some of the agencies that might have jurisdiction over the matter, asking who Smiley would need to contact to resolve this issue, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the NYS DEC and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has previously helped with barge removal projects around New York. A spokesperson from the U.S. Coast Guard responded they would forward our request to a local public affairs team, but we did not receive a response. A representative from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers responded that they forwarded our request to the NYS DEC. “They would be the agency with the primary jurisdiction in this case,” the Army Corps rep said. As for the DEC? They say they’re on it. “DEC is investigating this situation and working to identify potential enforcement options to address the illegal and dangerous conditions created by abandoned barges in this area of Queens in order to ensure protection of public health and the environment,” a NYS DEC spokesperson said.

However, after so many months of waiting, Smiley is losing faith. “DEC says they’re looking into it. They’re not looking into it, they’re lying. I’ve been dealing with them and they don’t get back to me,” Smiley claims.

DEC’s alleged slow action isn’t the only bone Smiley has to pick with the agency. Due to DEC regulations on developing waterfront property, Smiley says the agency will only allow him to build a 6,000 square foot building on the 28,000 square foot property. “How is it that they can enforce these rules and guidelines at the exact same site that they are allowing these barges to destroy the ecosystem, wetlands, wildlife and the environment of Jamaica Bay and the Vernon Basin Canal?” Smiley said.

Smiley says his two-front battle with the DEC is keeping him from moving forward with any plans for the property. “I’m trying to push for a 10,000 square foot building. It would either be a warehouse or small, individual rentable spots for different stores but I’m not sure what I’m doing here yet. It will depend on how big they’ll let me go. And because of this view, I’d like to build a second-floor restaurant and I can put up to a 110-foot dock in the water, but I can’t access it because of the barges,” he said.

Moving forward, will depend on if anyone is willing to help. “We are trying to get someone to care about this situation as much as we do,” Smiley said. “We’d like to see if there is anything we can do together to resolve this issue and clean up the basin and make it safe for the environment and community,” Smiley said.

By Katie McFadden

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