PILOT pact in place in Brentwood

Jerry Wolkoff, developer of Heartland Town Center, on

Jerry Wolkoff, developer of Heartland Town Center, on the site. In August 2012, Wolkoff and Islip Town were embroiled in contentious negotiations over the renewal of an agreement for payment in lieu of taxes on the $4 billion Heartland project in Brentwood. (Credit: Newsday, 2010 / Audrey C. Tiernan)

The developer of the stalled $4 billion Heartland Square project in Brentwood has received a decade-long tax break.

The Islip Town Board voted unanimously Tuesday night to extend the PILOT, or payment in lieu of taxes, on the project, touted as the largest planned development on the East Coast.

Under the agreement, developer Gerald Wolkoff is to pay $1.6 million annually through 2017, when annual payments increase to $1.65 million for the remaining five years of the PILOT. Based on the property's value, that would amount to an $18.5 million tax cut over 10 years.

The vote came after months of negotiations between Wolkoff and the Brentwood Union Free School District, which receives the bulk of property taxes. The town board, which has final approval, tasked the school board with negotiating an agreement.

Luis Ramos, director of the Brentwood Labor Force community group, said the project would bring thousands of jobs to neighborhood residents. "We desperately need the jobs," Ramos told the board.

The town board, which raised town property taxes 28 percent last year, touted the agreement as a way to ensure the school board maintains its funding, amid threats from Wolkoff to challenge his assessment in court.

Supervisor Tom Croci said the plan for Heartland would require 90 percent of the construction materials and workers on the project to be from Suffolk and Nassau counties.

Wolkoff bought the 450-acre parcel for $20 million from the state in 2002, with plans to build a new community, including 9,000 apartments and an entertainment district. But he has received no building permits amid disagreements with town and state officials, including over the use of union workers on construction and traffic mitigation near Sagtikos Parkway.

Absent a PILOT pact, Wolkoff would have paid $3.3 million in property taxes in 2011 based on the property's assessment at the time of $120 million, which Wolkoff said was vastly inflated. That year, he paid $1.6 million under a 10-year PILOT arrangement that expired last year.

The property, the former site of Pilgrim State Hospital, has been assessed by the town at about $109 million, which Wolkoff argues is still too high. He has said the PILOT is not akin to a tax break because the property assessment is inaccurate, but he said he's refrained from pushing the issue because he doesn't want to hurt the school district.

Wolkoff did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Joe Fritz, a former member of the Brentwood school board, suggested the town board reject the PILOT. "You are giving a tax break to a multimillionaire," Fritz said. "This board, in effect, has become Jerry Wolkoff's lobbyist."

Councilman Anthony S. Senft Jr. said the PILOT will help move the project forward.

"I don't care if he's a billionaire or a pauper," Senft said. "I don't look at the pocketbook of a developer when considering PILOTs. It's not on the backs of taxpayers, it's an agreement that's going to benefit the Islip Town taxpayer."

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