The following was first published on The Foggiest Idea on November 7, 2017.
If the mega-developer cousins Gregg and Mitchell Rechler have their way, what was once a quiet golf course in Sayville bordered by a spattering of single-family homes will become a 1,378-unit luxury rental project built under their high-end Greybarn brand in the near future.
Community members aren’t huge fans of Rechlers’ plan—and they have valid reasons to be teed off because it runs directly counter to the recommendations of a joint planning study from Suffolk County and the Towns of Brookhaven and Islip conducted in 2009.
Where the Rechlers want to locate their high density housing off Lakeland Avenue used to be the Island Hills Golf Club, which was designed by famed course architect A.W. Tillinghast and opened in 1927. The 114 acre parcel’s as-of-right zoning—or what’s legally allowed to be built without variances from the township—calls for a mere 84 or so single-family homes to be built on the property.
In recent years, the course was plagued by rumors of a pending sale, leading to struggles in attracting new membership. A year after the club finally closed in 2015, Plainview-based Rechler Equity Partners eventually purchased the land. The cousins have had their sights on the location since at least 2005 when they reportedly offered $40 million to buy out the club. Hoping to increase the return on their new investment, the Rechlers filed a change of zone application with the Town of Islip in March 2017 to create a new Planned Development District (PDD).
Although the project is already generating considerable buzz in the hamlet, it’s still in its earliest phases and its future is not set in stone. As of this writing, formal site plans and environmental impact studies have yet to be submitted to the Town of Islip.
In the Rechlers’ initial proposal, they wanted to construct 19 residential buildings, ranging in height from 45 to 55 feet, surrounded by roughly 25 acres of parkland around the perimeter. According to their marketing site for the project, these “buildings are designed to reflect the rich architectural heritage of the South Shore.”
So far, leaders in the municipality seem onboard with the proposal. The neighborhood not so much. After the Rechlers requested the zoning change, the response from local residents was swift.
From the creation of a website denouncing the project, to an online Change.org petition that amassed over 1,100 signatures, community members are concerned about the impact of Rechlers’ proposal.
“I have no problem with single family homes being built as first proposed,” Sayville resident Shawn Gallagher wrote on the petition site. “If apartment buildings are built here, this neighborhood is going to be destroyed.”
Another resident, Laurie Palladino, said she didn’t mind if the old golf course were developed, but she wanted input. “I have no problem with developing land if it keeps to the flavor of the surrounding community,” wrote Palladino, who claims she’s lived in the area for 30 years. “Let’s look for the support from each other and stand united in what we want for our community.”
Members of the Rechler family are no strangers to redeveloping golf courses on Long Island.
Mitchell and Gregg Rechler are brother and cousin, respectively, to Scott Rechler, the chairman and chief executive of the development firm RXR Realty, which wants to convert a portion of the Engineers Club in Roslyn into luxury housing. In RXR’s proposal, the golf course within the 138-acre country club would serve as a draw for residents of their planned condo complex there. According to Newsday, the push for development is anchored by the developers’ belief that Long Island region is “in dire need of rental housing and vibrant downtowns near rail lines to attract young professionals.”
The philosophy isn’t wrong, but any new rentals being built should be realistically priced.
That being said, the vacancy rates of Scott and Gregg Rechlers’ other Greybarn projects may back them up. The first phase of their 50-unit project in North Amityville hit full occupancy in September 2017, according to a press release issued by the company. The project’s second phase is leasing now.
From the planning side, the proposal raises substantive questions. The Rechler cousins claim that their Greybarn brand entails a walkable community. But in North Amityville, the property is two miles from the closest LIRR station. The Island Hills proposal isn’t much closer since the former golf course’s southern tip is more than a mile from the LIRR’s Sayville station and almost two miles from the hamlet’s quaint downtown.
More importantly, Rechler Equity Partners’ proposal is in direct conflict with a 2009 planning study commissioned by Suffolk County that involved both Islip and Brookhaven. Throughout the study, the Island Hills property is mentioned many times. The formal recommendation for the site explicitly states that the as-of-right zoning should be retained, and that a recreational zoning district should be created to “protect this valuable recreational use and preserve this existing oasis of open space.”
Despite the planning study’s recommendation and the residents’ outcry, the builders argue that their basis for requesting the massive zoning change is “…to provide for needed housing choices for Long Islanders, which will bring upper-income renters with disposable incomes to help sustain Sayville’s economy.”
Even after repeated requests for comment, officials in the Town of Islip’s planning department declined to answer.
Ron Meyer, the Town of Islip’s planning commissioner, may not have commented to The Foggiest Idea, but he did send a statement to News 12 Long Island in October 2017 that said the proposed zoning would allow for approximately 12 apartments to the acre and some accessory commercial uses. “The application has not been scheduled for a public hearing yet,” Meyer noted.
Anticipating pushback from their proposal to rezone the property, the Rechlers enlisted their own planner, Ann Marie Jones, to argue why Greybarn is appropriate for Sayville.
Their choice makes sense. Based in West Sayville, Jones has been a staple in the community development/planning world in Suffolk County, having formerly worked with both the Towns of Islip and Babylon. She knows what the cousins can do. In an October 2017 letter to Suffolk News, Jones wrote that when she was Babylon’s Commissioner of Planning and Development, she managed the review process for the builders’ first Greybarn project and “grew to appreciate their unique qualities as developers.”
Attempting to alleviate community concerns, the Rechlers’ efforts at Island Hills would apparently be done in phases, thus mitigating against any potential negative impacts like other large developments on the Island have had.
“The whole process would take a number of years, and it would be phased [in] so that it’s not all constructed at once,” added Jones. “In my experience with an application that comes in, the first submission is never what the final product is,” she said. “Hopefully, we can arrive at something that answers people’s questions and concerns while providing attractive and exciting housing to fill that need.”
Still, the recommendations of that 2009 planning study will likely loom over any final proposal the Rechlers put forth. The question now is whether the Town of Islip not only has the ability to respect their own prior planning efforts, but respond to the wishes of its residents.
By listening to the community more, the Rechlers could ensure that their vision for the Island Hills property is a real hole-in-one for the region.
Richard Murdocco is an award-winning columnist who regularly writes and speaks on Long Island’s real estate development issues. 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.