By Danny Schrafel
A standing-room only crowd – featuring a record-setting number of speakers for one hearing – packed Huntington Town Hall Tuesday night during a public hearing for Engel Burman Group’s proposal to build a senior housing community at Oak Tree Dairy.
The fireworks began even before the start of the hearing, which has been nearly two years in the making.
As Huntington Supervisor Frank Petrone and Councilman Gene Cook entered the room, they were greeted by rallying cries for and against the development. Chants of “Seasons yes!,” followed by retorts of, “hell no!” filled the room, which was fairly evenly split between Seasons supporters and opponents.
For some, the wait to speak began bright and early. Wendy Stranieri, an Elwood resident who opposes the proposal, set up shop outside Huntington Town Hall around noon. Once inside, she held up handmade signs opposing The Seasons and sparred with Seasons supporters.
“Who paid for my sign? Nobody. Who paid for your sign? Engel Burman,” Strineri said.
“You get what you pay for,” a pro-Seasons speaker shot back.
But once the meeting began, the rally atmosphere calmed.
“We heard your cheering loud and clear. That’s fine,” Petrone said at the start of the meeting. “But tonight will be orderly.”
Supporters argued the 360-unit, 55-and-over lifestyle community will meet a growing regional need for senior housing, benefit the Elwood School District financially, and bring needed traffic improvements to Elwood Road. But opponents continued to object to the project’s density, reiterated skepticism over traffic studies and mitigation efforts, and turned a new focus on environmental conditions at the site.
Engel Burman analysts said the 360-unit development has been well received and will bring economic benefits to the community.
“We’ve provided truthful information to the community, and we look forward to the town board issuing a favorable decision,” said Steven Krieger, a principal of the firm.
Martin Cantor, a former Suffolk County Economic Development commissioner and Engel Burman consultant, said the project will generate 750 new construction jobs, create a $140-million direct economic impact, and add $2 million to the tax base of the school district, which educates about 2,625 students and recently passed a $57-million budget for the 2014-2015 educational year.
Cantor said the development would also bring $30 million in new household income, bring an “unheard of” 6.6 percent increase in the hamlet’s household income.
Michael Dawidziak, who was hired by Engel Burman to poll the community on the proposal, found strong support for senior housing in general and The Seasons in particular. A recent poll indicated a 51-21 percent spread in favor of The Seasons, with the remaining 28 percent undecided or having no opinion.
“That’s an astoundingly good number,” Dawidziak commented.
Opponents, however, reiterated concerns about the density of the project and skepticism over traffic mitigation strategies, and honed in sharply on potential environmental issues.
Several cited a June 12 letter from the Elwood school board to the town board, which cited “contamination of the soil on the subject property” and the “presence of heavy metals including arsenic and 4-4-DDT.” The letter also alleges Engel Burman did not properly review traffic impacts and the impacts on the district’s transportation system.
Attorney Lee Reynolds, a partner in the law firm of McCarthy & Reynolds, Engel Burman’s lead counsel in the application, said that the environmental objection is a red herring that would be addressed during site plan review.
“The school district’s letter recites the findings of the applicant’s environmental report. What it doesn’t mention is that contamination is typical of a redevelopment site, and will be cleaned up with the oversight of the proper agency,” he said.
Town spokesman A.J. Carter said that environmental mitigation efforts would be addressed later by the planning board, during site plan review if the zone change is approved.
School District Defends Input
Elwood school board members and district leaders have been clear about their opposition to The Seasons, but one leader from a neighboring school district questioned the validity – and logic – of their stance.
Commack Board of Education President Peter Wunsch, a resident of East Northport, said the project would save Elwood residents on their property taxes.
“I wish there was space available for a project like this in Commack,” he said, and added that he saw “no negatives from a school board perspective.”
“I believe the Elwood school board’s opposition is extremely short-sighted,” he said.
The Long Island Builders Institute (LIBI) earlier this year filed a complaint with the New York State Department of Education, arguing that letters submitted by the school board opposing the development should be stricken and disregarded.
However, Elwood School District counsel Edward McCarthy said the district weighed in only because the town asked them to, and maintained their actions were appropriate and necessary to advocate for the welfare of students in district schools.
“We don’t have the final say, but we do have the right to articulate our concerns, especially when it comes to the educational mission of the district,” he said.
If they vote to advance the zone change, he urged the town to make cleaning up the soil a condition of approval.
Opponents Push For Supermajority Hurdle
Opponents of The Seasons are also hoping a new series of petitions would make it so a simple three-vote majority on the town board won’t be enough to ratify the zone change.
Preserving Elwood Now (PEN) President Jim Cameron said that the civic group filed a petition last week, containing signatures from 100 percent of property owners who live or own land within 100 feet of the Oak Tree Dairy property. That’s more than enough, they argue, to require a “supermajority vote” to ratify the zone change. Town law requires 20 percent of property owners within the 100-foot range to affirm their opposition in a petition in order to force the four-vote margin.
The Town Attorney’s office is reviewing the petitions, Carter said.
Density Debate Continues
Several opponents of the proposal floated new visions of what an acceptable level of density would be at the Oak Tree Dairy site.
Janice Lewis, a longtime Elwood resident who opposes The Seasons, proposed the construction of three, fully handicapped-accessible ranch homes per acre, or 111 total, which would allow the developer increased density that maintains the character of the community. Tom Van de Merlen, a founding member of PEN, said he and the civic group “could live with” 185 units on the site.
But Engel Burman attorney Michael McCarthy said the developer “has listened to the concerns of the community” on density by reducing initial plans for 482 units to the current 360-home proposal.
“As an age-restricted community, it will not have an impact on the school district but will provide a needed source of tax revenue,” he said.
Petrone pledged to “again convene the parties so they can continue to discuss this.” Those meetings follow a meeting that drew a total of 116 sign-ups to speak, a new record for any Huntington Town Hall hearing.
“Hopefully they’ll come to some to some sort of understanding,” Petrone said.
The town now has 90 days to vote on the proposal or pass a town resolution extending the period of time they have for consideration.