By Danny Schrafel
Engel Burman Group’s proposal to build The Seasons at Elwood on the 37-acre Oak Tree Dairy property has been given the go-ahead by the Suffolk County Planning Commission.
The commission voted July 2 to recommend approval of a zone change that, if approved by the Huntington Town Board, would clear the way for the 360-unit, for-sale, 55-and-over lifestyle community to be built on Elwood Road.
The commission’s recommendation contains one proposed modification, which suggests the town require Engel Burman Group to provide “frequent and convenient transportation to the various mass transit drop-off/pickup locations, to the major medical/health facilities in the area, and to commercial centers.”
Engel Burman Group spokeswoman Cheryl Silberman said Tuesday the developer is “happy that the Suffolk County Planning Commission recognizes the need for senior housing and that it is recommending to the Huntington Town Board that it approve the change of zone.”
Adhering to the planning commission’s revisions would normally mean the town board could approve the zone change by a simple, three-vote majority of the board’s five voting members, and could override the Planning Commission’s recommendations with a four-vote supermajority.
However, opponents of The Seasons have forced a supermajority vote for the zoning change through another avenue.
Town spokesman A.J. Carter confirmed Wednesday that 36 protest petitions – filed by Preserving Elwood Now (PEN) on June 13 and signed by property owners who live near the proposed site – are valid, following a review by the Town Attorney’s office and planning department. Now, four votes will be needed to approve the zone change required to move the senior housing project forward.
“The petition appears to be valid on its face, which means that the recommendation and conclusion is that a supermajority would be required,” Carter said.
Jim Cameron, president of PEN, applauded the determination.
“We did our research, we had our numbers. I’m very happy that the law is on our side in this case,” Cameron said. “All this does is make it more evident that the Elwood community has taken serious issue with the scope of this project.”
With the determination in place, there isn’t a vote to spare for The Seasons if it is to be approved. Councilman Gene Cook, an Independence Party member, has long been opposed to the project, meaning all four remaining members of the board – all Democrats – would have to vote yes to pass the zone change.
Steven Krieger, an Engel Burman Group partner, declined to comment Wednesday.
Cameron said the group collected signed petitions from every property owner directly on the Oak Tree Dairy’s property line, and more than 40 percent of property owners within 100 feet of the Oak Tree property. Under town law, a supermajority requirement is triggered once 20 percent of property owners within 100 feet oppose the zone change.
Opponents of the development – who argue it’s too dense, would create too much traffic on Elwood Road and could overburden the Elwood School District – have also been trying in recent months to undercut the Old Chester Hills Civic Association’s endorsement of the development. It’s a battle that has largely played out in correspondence between opposing sides to Huntington Town Board members.
In a May 4 letter, Cameron argued that at the civic group’s April 23 meeting, which PEN and Engel Burman officials attended, Old Chester residents in attendance were divided. He argued that the split invalidated a December 2012 letter sent by the civic group’s board endorsing The Seasons.
However, Michael McCarthy, attorney for Engel Burman, wrote back that Cameron, whom he said was not in attendance at the meeting and instead was represented by Greater Huntington Civic Group leader Steven Spucces, got some bad information.
McCarthy said it was “clear from the tenor of the conversation, the questions being asked and the dialogue engaged in” that many in attendance at the meeting, held at a private home, were favorable to the plan.
“It was also clear to anyone who was present that the opposition was affiliated with PEN and not the members of the Old Chester Hills Civic Association,” McCarthy wrote.
In a May 27 letter, hand-delivered to Town Hall by Old Chester Hills Civic board member Christine DiRaimo, the group reiterated its support, so long as concerns about traffic are addressed. They took no position on the density proposed for the community.
“While the board notes there are members of our neighborhood that are not in favor of the Elwood Seasons development, we believe a healthy majority of our households are in favor,” the letter reads.
The town has until Sept. 15, or 90 days after the June 17 public hearing, to vote on the zone change or pass a town resolution extending the period of time they have for consideration. The board’s next meeting is July 15 at 2 p.m.