By Danny Schrafel
After nearly two and a half years, the sun is finally set to rise on The Seasons at Elwood.
But Tuesday night’s 4-1 vote to approve the controversial 55-and-over lifestyle community planned for the Oak Tree Dairy property wasn’t without one last thunderstorm.
Opponents blasted Supervisor Frank Petrone from the floor at the town board meeting for calling a vote before the public comment portion, during which speakers would have had an opportunity to weigh in either for or against the proposal to build 256 age-restricted homes on the 37-acre property along Elwood Road.
During the last two-plus years, speakers both for and against The Seasons have packed board meetings to weigh in.
When Petrone announced he would call the vote early, multiple audience members shouted “No!” and heckled the board during an intense 10-minute showdown leading up to the final roll call. Opponents of The Seasons argued their right to be heard had been trampled.
Councilman Gene Cook clashed with Petrone over the decision to vote before hearing the public and said the project represented illegal spot zoning.
“It’s the wrong project, it’s the wrong time, and it’s wrong for Huntington,” Cook said.
But Petrone said residents have been weighing in for more than two years on The Seasons. After developer Engel Burman Group downsized the plan from an initial 482 units to the 256-home plan approved by the board Tuesday, the supervisor said it was time to act.
Engel Burman Group Principal Steve Krieger applauded the town board for its support.
“The people that are here tonight, the people who have supported us, want to remain in Huntington,” he said. “They want to remain near their kids and grandkids, near their doctors, near the stores they shop at, and they want to downsize. This is what this is all about.”
After the meeting, Petrone said that voting before the public portion was the right decision.
“People could have been even angrier with the fact that they had to sit through, give us information, and that we were just voting that zone change,” he said.
Councilwoman Tracey Edwards, who cast the crucial fourth vote and had been eyed for months as the key swing vote, said the developer earned her support by agreeing to reduce density, implement a community benefits package and pay for a third-party consultant to ensure soil contamination on the site is “remediated thoroughly.” A four-vote supermajority was needed to pass the zone change because of petitions filed by neighbors in opposition to the project.
“There are people that will never be for this project, and there are people that would have been fine if we had voted for it in higher density. I believe a compromise is the best approach,” she said.
Those concessions are written into the zone-change resolution. Engel Burman Group must adhere to eight conditions set by the Huntington Planning Board two weeks ago when it recommended the zone change, including mandates that cap the development at 256 senior homes; require up to 45 affordable units to be built per town code; and direct Engel Burman Group to pay for myriad traffic improvements.
Engel Burman Group will also pay $500,000 to the Elwood School District; $50,000 to the Elwood Library District; and $180,000 to the Town of Huntington’s Park and Recreation fund – the $128,000 required by law, plus an additional $52,000 for Elwood parks.
“This is the most stringent zone change… that far exceeded any other development in my tenure here in the town,” Petrone, who has been supervisor since 1994, said.
Engel Burman Group’s next stop is the town Planning Board for site plan approval. But more storm clouds may be on the horizon in the form of an Article 78 lawsuit aimed at thwarting Tuesday’s decision on the grounds that the board made an “arbitrary and capricious” decision.
Preserving Elwood Now President James Cameron said that the civic group still has to make a final decision on whether to sue, but said, “Based on what happened tonight, it will be an easy sell to everyone.”