The following op-ed was first published in the March 17, 2021 edition of Newsday on page A23. You can read the original here.
School districts overstep their authority to fight needed, useful projects.
By Richard Murdocco
School districts across Long Island are taking a more active role in critiquing real estate development proposals — acting more like local zoning boards than the stewards of childhood education.
While local schools deserve a seat at the table as much as any other community stakeholder, these entities cannot singularly determine our region’s developmental future by holding projects accountable outside of their purview.
By opposing local development efforts, such intervention by area districts threatens to upend not only the formal municipal land use review process but also the community-based planning model as a whole.
In recent years, we’ve seen numerous examples of districts wading into the fraught politics of real estate, adding further complication to what is an already byzantine process.
Back in 2016, builders sought to develop Syosset Park, one of the largest mixed-use projects proposed in Nassau County that would have brought different types of housing, retail and offices to the Cerro Wire property, a 92-acre industrial site that has been vacant for decades.
As public debate over the project intensified, the Syosset school district played an especially active role in opposing the proposal due to its potential impact on student enrollment. Across numerous mailings and public remarks, school officials argued the project would generate enough children to necessitate building two new classroom wings at a cost of $17 million, as well as create the need for $12 million in additional annual costs once full build-out was reached.
After fierce opposition that was fueled by lingering questions about environmental conditions on-site, the development team eventually withdrew the Syosset Park application in 2019. Now, they regrouped to pitch an Amazon distribution warehouse, a mostly as-of-right use under current zoning, but the school district is insisting on double-checking the necessary traffic studies that are being conducted by the Town of Oyster Bay.
Farther east, the Hauppauge school district is taking things a step further by suing the Town of Smithtown over its recent rezoning action to allow housing in select areas of the Long Island Innovation Park at Hauppauge. The school district claims the town did not do the necessary environmental due-diligence in assessing the long-term impacts of the rezoning, and the overlay permissions granted should be reversed. Smithtown is asking the courts to dismiss the lawsuit.
The increasingly aggressive actions being taken by these districts against growth comes as data say that school enrollment continues to decline across Long Island year over year.
According to data cultivated from nextLI, an initiative by Newsday Opinion that is funded by the Rauch Foundation, yearly student enrollment has had a mostly negative rate of growth. Considering the fact that the region’s population has increased slightly in recent years, the declines in overall student enrollment lay in direct contrast with the overall rise in Long Island’s population.
While it’s critically important that municipalities follow regionally cohesive policies that appropriately factor in the impacts of growth on schools, the districts themselves should not be policing land-use policy. That is the responsibility of localities, and they alone must ensure that builders engage with key stakeholders early on.
School districts rightly deserve to be part of the conversation — but they cannot unilaterally hold it hostage.
Richard Murdocco, who writes on Long Island land-use and regional policy issues at TheFoggiestIdea.org, is an adjunct professor of economic development and planning at Stony Brook University.