With seething opponents powerless to stop the proceedings, the Huntington Town Board has finally approved a zoning change to allow a controversial condominium development for residents over the age of 55.
Dubbed the Seasons at Elwood, the project originally called for 482 two-bedroom residences to be built by the Garden City-based Engel Burman Group on a 37-acre field near the defunct Oak Tree Dairy on Elwood Road north of Jericho Turnpike. But over the course of three years as community opposition grew, the Seasons shrank, until the developer agreed with the town to settle on 256 units—for an average sale price of $450,000.
“The Town of Huntington is very underserved when it comes to senior housing,” Jan Burman, president of the Engel Burman Group told the Press. “They have about 2,000 senior units in a town that has more than 50,000 eligible people.”
The rezoning measure passed 4-1 on Aug. 19, with Councilman Eugene Cook, the sole Republican on the board, casting the only vote against the measure. The margin, a supermajority, was required for passage because the condos’ opponents had submitted a “protest petition” to the board at the public hearing on June 17 when 116 people signed up to speak. That session lasted from 7 p.m. until almost midnight.
The Seasons at Elwood has been a lightening rod, drawing critics like Wendy Stranieri, a long-time Elwood resident, who objected to the high density of new housing in her “single-family residential community.” It also drew supporters such as Peter Wunsch, an East Northport resident who’s president of the Commack School Board and wanted the opportunity when he retired to remain on Long Island in an affordable condo near his old neighborhood.
At the recent August meeting, Huntington Town Supervisor Frank Petrone decided to hold the vote on the rezoning resolution before the public comment period, which infuriated the critics but pleased the supporters in attendance. The board did not relish the prospect of sitting through the same arguments they’d “pretty much heard” before, as Petrone adamantly explained from the dais.
The next step is getting the site plan approved by the town and Suffolk County. Under the terms of the resolution, the developer has to pay $500,000 to the Elwood School District, $50,000 to the Elwood Library District, plus $52,000 for nearby park improvements. In light of community concerns raised at previous public hearings about contaminated topsoil at the site, the developer will set up a soil management plan overseen by an independent monitor approved by the town.
It will also add turning lanes to Elwood Road on its property to alleviate traffic problems on this major commuter artery. And, unlike the houses in the surrounding neighborhood which have cesspools, the new project will get its own sewage treatment plant.
“We’re probably going to spend four or five million dollars on that,” said Burman, the developer, who was far from sanguine about winning the rezoning battle.
“It’s not easy to do business on Long Island,” he said with a sigh. “It’s just very, very hard to get anything done out here. Everything is controversial and everything is a problem.”
He gave his opponents credit.
“They’re very good at stirring everybody up,” he said. “They wouldn’t have been happy if we had done 20 houses. They just didn’t want anything in there. We would’ve been happier with more.”
What surprised him most in the rezoning struggle, he said, was the outspoken opposition from the Elwood school district, including the Elwood PTA, the school board and even the schools superintendent, who had complained about overcrowding “straining the taxpayers” despite the deed restriction that no children under 18 would be allowed to live at the Seasons. Another complaint focused on the environmental findings that the topsoil was contaminated with pesticides and heavy metals—left over from the site’s farming legacy.
“We offered them a tremendous situation where we were going to give them a million dollars up front,” Burman said. “The tax benefit to them would have been around $3 million a year. By knocking it down, they knocked the tax benefit to themselves by half. You ask yourself, ‘Why?’ But that’s what they wanted.”
At a meeting in May at the Elwood Middle School organized by the Elwood PTA, Jim Cameron, head of the Preserving Elwood Now community group, reportedly denounced the project as “a stack ’em and pack ’em, high-density multi-family unit” development.
According to the developer, there will be two-bedroom condos and a recreation center, as well as indoor and outdoor swimming pools. If the approval process stays on track, Burman expects the Seasons at Elwood to welcome its new residents in the spring of 2016.
“The people are going to love it, and it’s going to sell very quickly,” Burman predicted. “It’s very much in need and in demand.”