The following was first published on The Foggiest Idea on October 2nd, 2017.
Something is rotten in the Town of Islip, and the stench seems to be wafting toward the neighboring Town of Huntington. What’s troubling is that Islip doesn’t seem to care.
When Islip voted in July to approve the 113-acre first phase of Jerry Wolkoff’s huge Heartland Town Square project, the town board’s decision supposedly ended almost 15 years of controversy on the largest developmental effort in our region’s history.
In a last-ditch effort Huntington Town Supervisor Frank Petrone wrote a letter to the Suffolk County Planning Commission to raise the issues that his town had repeatedly brought up regarding Heartland’s impact on both his township and Islip.
“Our chief and overriding concern has been the traffic effects of the project on the surrounding areas, most notably from our perspective, Commack Road and Sagtikos Parkway,” Petrone told the commission. In 2010, Huntington had suggested that the county and the towns surrounding Wolkoff’s project should come to a consensus and begin to upgrade the roadway infrastructure before Islip could approve Heartland.
But Huntington’s suggestion fell on deaf ears—a frustrating pattern, apparently.
“So, just as we did two years ago, and five years before that,” Supervisor Petrone wrote the commission, “we continue to ask: Are the public improvements that will be necessary to support this project going to be planned and implemented?”
Islip’s response to its neighbor wasn’t very accommodating. With a spattering of deriding alliteration, the self-appointed gatekeepers of Heartland allegedly called Huntington’s complaints “hysterical” and “histrionic,” and disregarded them outright.
But within the Suffolk Planning Commission, some members took Huntington seriously, and according to a staff report from a September work session, they got set to trigger a public hearing.
Then attorneys from the Suffolk County Executive’s office stopped the commission’s review, thanks to a supposed legal technicality, by claiming that the entire Huntington Town board must sign the letter—not just the supervisor. After the county’s legal counsel issued its opinion, the commission decided not to schedule another public hearing.
As dictated by Suffolk County law, the Suffolk County Planning Commission has the authority to review plans and zoning actions if a project falls within 500 feet of county or state roads, municipal boundaries and estuaries.
The county commission had conducted a detailed review in February and approved Heartland’s first phase with conditions that sought to mitigate the project’s nastier impacts in terms of traffic and environmental footprint. In particular, the county recommended a stronger linkage to the Deer Park LIRR Station, as well as a host of other mitigating measures. Armed with Petrone’s objection this summer, the commission should have been empowered by county law to begin a rare commission proceeding to analyze how residents of Huntington would be affected by the first phase. Overall, roughly five percent of Heartland, or 172 units out of 3,500 or so, falls within 500 feet of the border between Islip and Huntington, the commission’s mandated jurisdictional limits.
Flare-ups between governmental entities like this one have happened before.
In 1961, the Maxson Electronics Company, a defense contractor, sought the necessary zoning from the Town of Islip to build a factory on a 125-acre site near the Bayard Cutting Arboretum in Great River. New York’s master-builder Robert Moses, then head of the State Parks Council among his other titles, wasn’t too happy with the project’s proximity to state parkland. He informally submitted his objections to the change-of-zone via his longtime aide and proxy, Sid Shapiro.
The ensuing high-profile scuffle between the powerful Long Island State Parks Commission and the Town of Islip exposed the need to protect municipalities and state-controlled interests from unwanted impacts by their neighbors’ actions. In the end, Maxson’s factory was approved when Islip agreed to sell a buffer area to New York State and Moses agreed to withdraw his objections to the zoning change, according to local reports from 1961.
Soon afterwards, a county law was enacted to ensure a timely review of disputed proposals by the planning commission. Dr. Lee Koppelman, a former regional planner for Nassau and Suffolk counties, is well versed on this issue because he helped draft the law that outlined the planning commission’s jurisdiction in the first place.
As Koppelman explained, previously a town had the right to take zoning action and the other township had no standing whatsoever. “To protect them,” Koppelman told The Foggiest Idea, “we wrote a law that gave the commission a quasi-jurisdictional function, which can have hearings and have the zoning change reversed.”
To Koppelman, what recently occurred between Huntington and Islip over Heartland was abnormal.
“I don’t recall requiring an entire resolution from a town board,” said Koppelman, now the executive director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies at Stony Brook University. “The supervisor usually speaks for the town board.”
Huntington spokesman A.J. Carter told Newsday that Petrone’s objection letter followed the format of previous ones that the planning commission had accepted. Recently, Carter told TFI that the town’s letter said everything they had to say on the issue.
“What the commission decides to do with our letter, well, that’s up to the commission,” he said, declining to comment further. County law itself mentions ” a municipality adjoining the boundary involved interposes an objection,” but doesn’t define how the challenge should be presented.
The commission likely contends that letters of objection are typically accepted as a matter of record when the larger review is conducted, and aren’t usually acted upon. In this case, the lack of relevant case law and no precedent for policymakers to follow ties the hands of all involved.
Within this murkiness policymaking that’s questionable at best seems to be stewing. Regardless of protocol, Huntington’s concerns about Heartland’s regional impact are legitimate, and other townships across Long Island should take note.
This episode between the towns and Suffolk County reflect the changing dynamics of the Suffolk County Planning Commission. The entity has yet to fully recover from an internal power struggle between pro-development and more moderate members back in January 2017.
Jennifer Casey, a personal injury lawyer based in Manhattan, was elected chairwoman by her peers after a heated contest with Michael Kelly, a developer and former head of the Long Island Builders Institute.
Barbara Roberts, the commission’s Southampton representative, told Newsday’s Rick Brand that Casey’s election would protect the planning board’s independence. Brand wrote in his column that the commission was facing increased lobbying from Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s administration for more development. Bellone’s position on Wolkoff’s project is no surprise given that the county executive has gone so far as writing a letter to Islip celebrating the project’s “vision” that will improve housing options and retain young professionals, as well as committing the county towards the future improvements of roadways within its jurisdiction to better serve Heartland.
Even with Casey’s reputation of having a balanced perspective, the increased political pressure and the placement of appointees with deep ties to the building industry on the commission are eroding its ability to adequately assess the impacts of development on the Island.
While Heartland is likely the biggest proposal to be reviewed by the commission, other large-scale projects will follow, highlighting the need for objective, data-driven review of the planning issues of the day. The commission is in danger of becoming a rubber stamp for growth instead of the objective body it has to be in order to protect our region for future generations.
With Huntington’s longstanding objections to Heartland and Islip’s indifference to its neighbor’s pleas, the commission’s role is more important than ever. As development issues become more contentious in the coming years, Long Islanders will have to put their trust in the only planning entity in the region with the power to make recommendations with legal teeth.
Is the commission up to the task? If you’re a resident of Huntington, the answer is sadly no.
Richard Murdocco is an award-winning columnist who regularly writes and speaks on Long Island’s real estate development issues. He is the founder and publisher of The Foggiest Idea, an award-winning public resource for land use in the New York metro region. More of his views can be found on www.TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea. You can email Murdocco at Rich@TheFoggiestIdea.org.
Richard Murdocco not only writes well, but also, he speaks with an experienced and knowledgeable voice.
Possibly, panel discussions should be calendared on local radio and television stations where his voice can be heard in open discussion or debate.
Long Island used to be a great place to live, work, and play. It is becoming too commercialized and crowded.
Not only crowded, actually becoming less healthful to live here. Developers put spin on mitigating hazards to water supply? Increase in traffic without infrastructure to handled it.
One would think the ink on the pad would be trying and corners in the rubber stamp wearing out. There should be a moratorium on any additional development here without all these issues being solidly addressed.