Column: Suffocating Suffolk, Part II

COURTESY PHOTO | Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone at a recent press conference
COURTESY PHOTO | Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone at a recent press conference

A push for more intense development of Suffolk County is under way.

Driving in Huntington the other day, my wife and I passed signs declaring “Save Our Town — Stop Villadom,” posted along roads. This refers to a proposed “Mega-Mall” named Villadom. An $80 million, 486.380 square-foot project, it’s proposed to be built on 50 acres of open land along Jericho Turnpike between Dix Hills and Elwood.

There’s also resistance elsewhere in the county to major development projects that include Greybarn Sayville, a 1,365-unit apartment complex proposed at the former Island Hills Golf Club, and Heartland Town Square, a 9,000-apartment complex slated for Brentwood.

The development push has caused civic groups to unite, including the 4 Towns Civic Association, which covers Babylon, Huntington, Smithtown and Islip, and is among the most powerful civic entities in Suffolk. “Civic Groups Use Regional Strategy to Oppose Development” was the subhead of a Newsday article last month. It reported: “Members of these groups say they want to maintain Long Island’s suburban feel and are voicing shared concerns about over-crowding, traffic … and potential harm to the environment.”

If you believe the East End is immune to this new development drive, don’t bet on it.

Having paved over Nassau County and a lot of western and central Suffolk, the bulldozer boys are seeking to finish up their activities — building bigger and with greater density than ever. And with their money and political influence, the East End will be all that’s remaining for them to hit. Most protected on the East End politically and geographically is Shelter Island. For now.

It can’t happen here? Years ago, my family lived in Sayville adjacent to the Island Hills Golf Club, a pretty community now facing transformation into high-density development.

The biggest intense development project is slated for Ronkonkoma. It’s called the “Ronkonkoma Hub” —1,450 apartments and 545,000 square feet of retail and office space on 50 acres at a cost of $650 million — and has been pushed hard by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

Last month the county executive’s office announced it has accepted a $1 billion proposal to build on 40 acres of county land just south of the core of Ronkonkoma Hub, a complex involving a 17,500-seat sports and entertainment arena, a 500-room hotel, two ice rinks, 160,000 square feet of medical research space and 90,000 square feet of retail stores and restaurants.

Even Newsday, which through the decades has sounded a clarion call for Long Island development, couldn’t stomach the stadium plan. “A Big Arena in Suffolk County Makes No Sense for Long Island” was the headline of a Newsday editorial. The subhead noted that “Nassau Already Has the Coliseum” and a “Bigger” arena is “in the Works at Belmont Park.”

“Major projects should be developed with a grasp of how they complement other parts of the region. That’s not what has happened here,” said Newsday’s editorial board. “There’s no sign that any professional team, including the Islanders, would settle in Suffolk … Given all that, it’s worrisome that Suffolk officials would choose the arena-centric option proposed by Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle and Woodbury engineer John Cameron.”

Mr. Cameron is a key figure in the stadium-plus project and is also chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council. The council’s website declares it “the only planning body representing both Nassau and Suffolk counties.” Its 12 members are appointed by the county executives of Nassau and Suffolk. In 2016, it received $250,000 from each county.

Mr. Cameron has been its chairman for a decade. He was a field engineer at the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant above New York City before founding Cameron Engineering & Associates in Woodbury.

The other figures in the stadium-plus project are Chicago real estate developer Jones Lang LaSalle and investment banker Ray Bartoszek who resides in Montana and also has a home in Southampton.

Commenting on the stadium-plus scheme — in a column headlined “Suffolk’s Grand Plan for a Sports Arena” — Joe Werkmeister, editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times, wrote: “As the details trickled out, this arena proposal became more and more absurd.”

Richard Murdocco, a Stony Brook University professor in its Public Policy graduate program, on his blog, The Foggiest Idea, revealed the process through which the builders of the arena-plus project were selected by a handful of Suffolk County officials. “He asked, ‘Why did Suffolk County seemingly shy away from the public eye?’”

“What’s old is new again,” he wrote.

Indeed, the push to pave over Suffolk has always been an inside job.