The following was exclusively published by The Foggiest Idea on June 3rd, 2022. Interested in supporting The Foggiest Idea’s award-winning reporting and analysis? Click here.
BY RICHARD MURDOCCO
For decades, different developments have been proposed to take root in the sandy slopes near the former Mediavilla Orchard along the Jericho Turnpike in Huntington Town.
But as anyone could plainly see all these ideas just went to seed. Now one of Long Island’s largest builders is banking that its project will finally yield the most profitable harvest that land has probably ever produced.
The Jericho-based Beechwood Organization, known for its Country Pointe projects that dot the region, is seeking to build 385 town homes for residents aged 55 and over on a swath of 55 acres of vacant property on the corner of Manor Road and Jericho Turnpike located in the Elwood School District and the Greenlawn water and fire districts.
As Michael Dubb, the founder and CEO of Beechwood Organization, and his son Steven Dubb, explained in their recent statement, “Earlier this year, Beechwood applied to the Town of Huntington to rezone the property to allow for construction of an active adult (55+) retirement community of all for-sale (not rental) homes. The proposed rezoning and our proposed site plan does not call for or permit any retail or commercial uses at the property.”
The site is across the Jericho Turnpike from the Elwood Pumpkin Farm and the Elwood Christmas Tree Farm, so it’s a relatively rare rural parcel along one of the most commercially developed routes in the Town of Huntington. It is directly adjacent to the Berkeley Jackson County Park, which is a 130-acre hiking area with its own interesting history.
Huntington Town bought Manor Farm Park, once known for its collection of exotic animals kept there, in 2000 so it could serve as a trailhead connecting the nearby 20-acre Town Manor Road Park to its north and the Berkeley Jackson County Park that lies just south of it. The remains of two former sand quarries still occupy the park’s hilly western portion. The acquisition marked the first time the Town of Huntington used its then-new Environmental Open Space and Park Fund (EOSPA) to purchase land.
More than 20 years ago, as the New York Times reported, Mark Mediavilla had an ambitious plan with his father Salomon to transform 35 acres of their apple farm planted by Mark’s grandfather in the 1950s into something they wanted to call Orchard Park. At an estimated cost of more than $80 million, the project was going to feature “a downtown village center” that would be a self-contained walkable community with 360 luxury rental apartments, rows of retail stores with affordable apartments to accommodate the employees, and two three-level parking garages nestled into the hillside. At its entrance from the turnpike a three-acre village green would steer traffic to a 1,200-foot-long main street bordered with sidewalks.
Orchard Park never bore fruit.
In 2013, as longtime readers of The Foggiest Idea may recall, Great Neck-based Villadom Corp., headed by developer Kris Torkan, proposed a large retail “lifestyle center” (or, without the marketing real estate jargon, a shopping center) called Elwood Orchard for the location.
After a tepid community response, the project’s retail mix was eventually scaled back, and as a sweetener, Torkan included a new home for the Elwood Public Library on-site. Despite the addition of the library, the changes weren’t enough to garner enough local support. Five years later, after being buffeted by the changing economic winds for brick-and-mortar retail, Torkan’s proposal was officially pulled in 2018.
When Torkan and Villadom made their pitch, TFI argued that the Town of Huntington should think beyond mere retail on the sizable vacant parcel because it is unique for densely-developed western Suffolk County. Torkan’s proposal wasn’t as ambitious as the Mediavilla’s mixed-use project but it met a similar fate.
Town Planning documents dating from the early 1990s noted that the vacant land around there should be targeted to be “designated for preservation or stringent environmental review” as a potential addition to Berkeley Jackson County Park. The plan went so far as to recommend acquisition through the New York State Environmental Quality Bond Act. Considering the environmental problems facing Long Island, its foresight was admirable.
In 2008, Huntington’s Horizons 2020 comprehensive plan punted on making recommendations for the future of the Mediavilla parcel, choosing to shoehorn a proposed mixed-use commercial corridor along Jericho Turnpike that conveniently has a gap at the site. As of this writing, the Town’s online zoning map shows that the property is currently zoned R-40, which allows for low-density residential uses as-of-right.
After news of the Beechwood project broke, Beechwood principal Steven Dubb told Long Island Business News’ David Winzelberg that the community shouldn’t be concerned – especially given the site’s as-of-right zoning.
“The existing zoning of the property is residential,” he told Winzelberg, “and we are proposing a type of residential use that we think is better suited and more needed by town residents than the existing residential zoning.”
Dubb pointed out that the traffic impact of Country Pointe would be nothing compared to what a shopping center would bring there, and he wanted to emphasize the positive economic benefits that his project would offer the financially beleaguered Elwood School District.
“From a school tax point of view, the development would provide millions of dollars a year in school taxes to the school district,” the builder noted, adding that the proposal has plenty of room to evolve with community input. “I don’t think what we’re doing is overdevelopment. I think it’s smart development.”
Torkan told Newsday that there is an agreement in place for the Beechwood Organization to purchase the land from his company if the project is approved. Dubb told Newsday that they do not intend to seek Industrial Development Agency benefits, and that they will begin outreach to the community in the coming weeks.
As Beechwood works to get the site rezoned, local debate about what should or shouldn’t be done with the vacant land is once again heating up in Elwood, a community that has seen various development proposals nearby be greenlit by the Town of Huntington in recent years.
On social media, local residents once again flocked to online groups focused on development at the site, which first formed to mobilize against the shopping center project years ago. As community members fretted about the typical suburban developmental concerns over traffic, taxes, and developer greed, one member wrote that Beechwood might actually be presenting the best-case scenario for the site.
“The community should be heard loud and strong because it’s we the people not they the town or developer,” Michael Laino posted in an extended exchange with others online. “Beechwood understands this big time,” he added, going on to cite the Dubbs’ previously successful track record while at the same time lamenting the lack of housing for first-time homebuyers instead of accommodating the 55 and older crowd. “In Huntington, we should be investing in the next generation, not forcing them out of state.”
Others weren’t as accommodating as Mr. Laino. One resident feared that traffic would eventually equal that of the “worst parts of Nassau,” while another posted a bunch of angry and vomiting emoticons in response to Newsday’s article on Beechwood’s newest proposal.
As these community members buzzed online, Huntington Town Supervisor Ed Smyth issued a statement on “overdevelopment” within the Town. “The Town cannot stop property owners from asking for a zoning change or a new use for their property, however, the Town has no obligation to advance any proposal.”
Supervisor Smyth cryptically stated that future hearings will be held to close “a loophole that could be exploited by developers to advance inappropriate projects.”
“Our residents have a right to weigh in on what is being proposed for their neighborhoods for the Town Board to consider,” he said. “Generally, I have a very low bar for scheduling public hearings but applicants should be forewarned: They may not like what they hear from the public.”
As the future of the overgrown sandy hills is once again up for debate, perhaps it’s finally time that regional policymakers and elected officials work with local community members and other stakeholders to determine the best outcome for that stretch of land that sits on Jericho Turnpike between Manor and Warner Roads in Elwood.
“We do not ever try to ram a plan down a community’s throat; our approach is always to work collaboratively with the community,” Dubb told Newsday. “We needed a starting point and this is our starting point.”
Who knows if the neighboring residents, already jaded from years of fighting with the Town of Huntington over past proposals, will see things the same way?
As we all know, open space in western Suffolk County is a rare commodity in the 21st century.
WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SPENCER RUMSEY
Richard Murdocco is an award-winning columnist and adjunct professor in Stony Brook University’s public policy graduate program and School of Atmospheric and Marine Sciences. He regularly writes and speaks about Long Island’s real estate development issues. Follow him on Twitter @thefoggiestidea.