Town Zoning Board Nixes "Smart Growth" Redevelopment In Elmont
As proponents of the principles of Smart Growth, we often scratch our heads and wonder how localities -- in this instance (as in so many others), the Town of Hempstead -- can routinely "talk" smart growth, while giving such short shrift to any undertaking that invokes such developmental linchpins as mixed use, eco-friendly, and sustainability.
The talk of the town of late has been Elmont, the gateway to Nassau County, where the word -- by way of news conferences, press releases, and personal appearances by Town Supervisor Kate Murray -- is all about smart growth rejuvenation.
Visioning, followed by planning, on the heels of yet more talk, and still, little progress toward rebuilding infrastructure beyond the tribute of brick pavers, wrought iron benches, and Victorian-style street lamps, the hallmark, and, too often, the end-all of the Town's streetscaping initiatives.
When plans -- real plans; shovel-ready plans; community-supported plans; eco-friendly plans; sustainable revitalization plans -- are offered up, the Town habitually rejects them, sets up roadblocks to derail them, hoists red flags to rile up those who would oppose them, and conjures up the most mind-boggling schemes to nip them in the bud, acquiescing, if at all, only when besieged and bludgeoned by the community at large.
No, its not just in Elmont that the vexxing of smart growth is so prevalent. We have seen it, and blogged on it, in Baldwin, in Roosevelt, in Uniondale, and, most recently, in West Hempstead (where the Town, after a battle celebre, lasting more than a dozen years, finally relented to the will of the people, in agreeing to the rezoning of property which will lead to the eventual razing and redevelopment -- as residential, recreational, and retail space -- of the infamous Courtesy Hotel).
And back in Elmont, where so-called Blight Studies have only confirmed what residents and merchants have known for decades, the Town of Hempstead continues to say "no" to viable, workable, meaningful plans, to raise that community from the ashes of neglect and decline.
Indeed, one such project -- a proposal which would recast a part of Hempstead Turnpike (that "twenty miles of ugly") with the preferred mixed use of retail and much-needed residential space (replacing the current mixed bag of blight, neglect, and decay) -- was unanimously denied by the Town of Hempstead's Zoning Board (cum Planning Board) of Appeals (to which there is typically no appeal), notwithstanding tremendous community support, including that of the Coalition for Sustainable Development, the Elmont East End Civic Association, and the Elmont Chamber of Commerce.
So much for government by, for, or of the people in Hempstead Town!
In the developer's (Muzzio Tallini -- an Elmont native son -- of Signature Homes, Ltd., Elmont, NY) own words:
We originally met with Councilman Ed Ambrosino over 3 years ago (August, 2006) to discuss this project. At that time, he advised me to hold off on the project so that Elmont could draft its Vision Plan. We would wait and see what the community had to say prior to moving forward.
Fast forward to June, 2008 with the publishing of the Elmont Vision Plan. We read it many times over, and noticed mixed-use development was mentioned numerous times (at least 7 by my count) throughout the Vision Plan as the type of development the community wanted for the Hempstead Turnpike corridor. We immediately went to work on preparing proposed plans consistent with the Vision Plan.
The project consists of 5 retail ground floor units and 10 upper level (2nd & 3rd levels) residential duplex apartments.
At that time, we also reached out to Pat Nicolosi, President of the Elmont East Civic Association, and a member of the Elmont Coalition for Sustainable Development, and asked him to work together with us so that we can design a project that everyone was in favor of. He agreed, and we made a presentation to the Elmont Coalition for Sustainable Development in October 2008.
The Coalition's Zoning sub-committee was asked to look at the project (this project would be a pilot project of sorts, the first to be submitted consistent with the Vision Plan and with the support of the Coalition). The Zoning sub-committee included Pat Nicolosi, Julie Marchesella (Elmont Chamber of Commerce), Lyle Syclair (Sustainble Long Island), and, coincidentally, Councilman Ambrosino. We presented the renderings to the Zoning sub-committee, and the members were enthusiastically in support of the project, and in fact, wanted to see the project move forward quickly. With their support, we prepared the necessary drawings and filed same with the Town of Hempstead at the end of December 2008. We also committed at this time to build this development LEED certified. This project would have been the first LEED certified mixed-use development in all of Long Island.
Our hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals was scheduled for July 8, 2009 (yes, it took us 7 months just to get a hearing). While we waited, we were sure to meet with Councilman James Darcy (the project is actually in Darcy's district) to get his support as well, which he did provide.
Our hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals went as smoothly as any I can remember in recent memory. We talked about the Vision Plan and the LEED aspects of the project. My impression was that the Board appeared very interested in the project and we had community support, evidenced by residents who showed up and spoke at the actual hearing. There was some miscellaneous opposition, but I'm convinced that if Mother Theresa herself proposed a project on Long Island, there would be opposition. In fact, the opposition praised the overall look and design of the project as well as the "green" features of the development.
In August, the Board issued their decisions unanimously denying the project. While the Board did not state a specific reason for the denial in their decision, my attorney advised me it was because of the mixed-use aspect of the project. Also interesting was the fact the Nassau County Planning Commission supported this project by issuing a resolution of "local determination".
The decisions by the Board caught everyone completely by surprise. How could a project so unilaterally supported and consistent with the principles of smart-growth be unanimously denied? In addition, how could the Board completely disregard the Vision Plan (which the Town paid half of) in this case, when the Town so warmly embraced it at the Argo site, where they could get their hands on 2.5 million (in State funds)? Moreover, what does this denial say for the future redevelopment of Hempstead Turnpike in Elmont? Developers will not touch any part of Hempstead Turnpike if they know they cannot get any approvals from of the Town. And lastly, if we can't get this project through the Town, what makes anyone think that Argo or Belmont can be approved?
Assemblyman Tom Alfano, who represents Elmont and has been a resounding voice in the fight for the area's resurgence, had this to say:
"My focus with Hempstead Turnpike is pretty simple. We need to promote smart economic development and growth. That means we need to promote projects that will help us get to that goal. Right now, Hempstead Turnpike has too many 'for rent' signs, too many out of business signs and is a hodge-podge of development. More disconcerting, is the fact that Hempstead Turnpike is becoming the storefront church capital of Long Island. This is having a chilling effect on positive economic development plans that will help turn around the turnpike. What we need are more small businesses and job generating ideas. What we don't need is for more properties to come off the tax rolls which shifts the tax burden to homeowners. Simply stated, we need to create jobs, put more businesses on the tax rolls and offer progressive housing initiatives. This is not the Long Island of the 1950's."
Perhaps Pat Nicolosi -- never one to mince words -- puts it best:
"You know the story all too well. It's a story about this lady who was elected to be in charge of a large town, but the only things she does is take pictures, confuse seniors, and send out fliers. Oh, I forgot -- hires her father and brother and then hires her father again after he retires. At the same time, communities are waiting for some sort of progress. I told Muzzio (the developer) to change his name to Breslin."
Nicolosi added, "someone needs to be in charge, the buck needs to stop at some desk."
Not with the Town's Zoning Board, apparently, or with the Supervisor, who hand picks the Board's members.
Yes, as we've said many, many times, "sometimes, you have to sweat the small stuff."
And maybe, just maybe, Hempstead Town needs a Supervisor ready and willing to give the people -- as in, "We the people" -- what they want, need, and deserve!