Developers are wasting time if they don't get political and community "ownership" of their proposals early on, builders and Long Island officials said Wednesday in a panel discussion the morning after the Huntington Town Board rejected a 490-unit housing complex.
"This battle is being won or lost on the ground," said Christopher Capece, development director for Avalon Bay Communities, which was denied approval for its $100-million project in Huntington Station.
The breakfast discussion in Bethpage, hosted by Building Long Island magazine, was supposed to focus on streamlining the approval process, but instead, AvalonBay's plight highlighted what some considered an even bigger problem.
Cofounder Robert Coughlan of Tritec Real Estate, now building a major retail and housing complex in downtown Patchogue, said there are so many competing opinions on priorities, from affordable housing to infrastructure, that it's hard to get everyone on the same page. Unlike other places where his company has built housing, Long Island is much less centralized and has more overlapping layers of government and competing business groups to cover, he said.
"Why do you want to go through that process when we can go to another community and get it done a lot faster?" said Coughlan, whose firm is based in East Setauket.
That's why developers should marshal political and community support in the "quiet" time before proposals are announced "so that everybody has some type of ownership of the project," he said.
There was a sense at Wednesday's gathering that AvalonBay had tried to touch all the right buttons in its political and neighborhood outreach, leaving its defeat a bit of a mystery to those in attendance.
Despite kudos from much of the community and regional planners, the Huntington Station project fell through in a 3-2 Town Board vote after many residents complained it would burden the school district even more, create more traffic problems and exacerbate violent crime in a community that's angry over the closure of a school because of safety concerns.
Capece told the audience that his boss, Matt Whalen, was at the firm's Virginia headquarters to explain why the project went down: "There are some very difficult conversations going on right now."
Afterward, Capece said the company was digesting what had happened and not yet thinking downsizing the proposal again, as one board member had suggested.
In the past three years, he said, AvalonBay had held about 100 public meetings with various groups, starting with school district officials. Capece characterized opponents as a "vocal" minority who drowned out supporters.
"Would we have done anything different?" Capece said. "I don't think so. I think we reached out to every community group who had a stake."
Several business people said the vote blared out a big message on proposed development for the Island. "Squashed" was the word from Merrick resident Ilene Dixel at the breakfast.
Tritec's Coughlan noted that the Huntington board's vote resounds in an ailing economy: "This is saying the door is closing to business development."
Stephanie Carlino, cofounder of The Long Island Breakfast Club, a job search group, said people who want affordable housing and other conveniences need to accept that it might be in their backyards. "It's like, 'I'd like a church, but not here.' "