NIFA approves Freeport open space purchase

Protestors Genis Markus and Anita Dennis of Freeport

Protestors Genis Markus and Anita Dennis of Freeport at the Nassau Interim Finance Authority meeting at the Marriott Long Island Hotel & Conference Center, Uniondale. (Aug. 30, 2012) (Credit: Heather Walsh)

Nassau's financial control board Thursday gave backhanded approval to the county's $6 million purchase of four acres of former Brooklyn Water Works property in Freeport in the face of strong community support for the acquisition.

The Nassau Interim Finance Authority split over the county's plan to buy back the property it sold to developer Gary Melius 26 years ago and preserve it for open space. The state board voted 2-2, with one abstention, to reject the deal.

Because the board could not muster the four votes required to reject a contract, chairman Ronald Stack said the purchase was approved.

"The people of Freeport are pleased," village Mayor Andrew Hardwick said after the vote at NIFA's public meeting in Uniondale.

"It's a win-win for everybody," said Melius, who has never been able to win approval for any development proposal since he purchased the land from the county in 1986 for $1.4 million.

County Executive Edward Mangano proposed repurchasing the site for $6.22 million, financed with borrowed money from Nassau's voter-approved 2006 environmental bond act and existing money from the county's Open Space Fund. The county legislature approved the purchase unanimously this spring.

The site is adjacent to the 20-acre Brooksite Preserve and would be maintained by the South Shore Audubon Society as an extension of that preserve. This week, community activists urged NIFA to approve the deal, arguing that most of the $100 million from the bond act had been spent to preserve land on the North Shore, while the more densely developed South Shore had received little benefit.

Stack and board member George Marlin voted to reject the purchase. Voting against rejection were NIFA members Dermond Thomas and Chris Wright, while Leonard Steinman abstained.

Marlin complained that the purchase would remove the property from the tax rolls, while Stack argued Nassau "should be selling land, not buying land." But Wright said the deal has "some redeeming qualities"; Thomas called it "not a bad idea."

Steinman said he abstained because he is running for State Supreme Court this fall. "I thought it appropriate not to vote on certain matters . . . that financially affect individuals reported to be influential in political parties."

Melius hosts many political fundraisers as owner of Oheka Castle in Huntington. His catering manager, Rick Bellando, is executive director of Nassau's Independence Party, but Melius said he himself has no role in political endorsements. "I know everybody and I'm friendly but I make no decisions. I have no position on the [party's] board," Melius said.

Also Thursday, NIFA members unanimously rejected three contracts for legal services, complaining the county had entered into them before getting the board's approval.

One for $200,000 to Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe was for bond counsel services. A $60,000 contract to Meara Avella Dickinson was for representation for the county in Albany during the legislative session. The other $60,000 contract was with Robert J. Bishop for lobbying services in Albany.NIFA approved eight other legal contracts, including $395,000 to the firm of Berkman, Henoch, Peterson, Peddy & Fenchel, for which Nassau Republican Chairman Joseph Mondello serves as counsel. Two other agreements totaling $237,000 were approved for Democratic party lawyer Steven Schlesinger -- about half of that amount was for representation of Democrats during last year's redistricting fight.

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