A referendum Tuesday on whether Oyster Bay should sell its 54-acre public works facility in Syosset is the latest chapter in the 18-year battle between the town and a developer who says he has spent $165 million trying to build a luxury mall on adjacent property.
Opponents and proponents of the sale have revved up their public relations campaigns, spending tens of thousands of dollars on fliers, robocalls, canvassers, and radio, TV and newspaper ads in an effort to sway voters. Each side accuses the other of resorting to inaccuracies and misinformation.
Taubman Centers Inc. has proposed building the mall on the former Cerro Wire site, a plan opposed by the town and local community groups who fear increased traffic and say the mall is inappropriate for that site. The town wants to sell its public works facility next door to a group headed by rival mall owner Simon Property Group, which owns the Roosevelt Field and Walt Whitman malls and wants to block Taubman's plans. Taubman also would like to purchase the public works facility.
The fight reflects the development debate that has played out across Long Island for years: One side says Long Island already is overbuilt and overcrowded and doesn't need large projects such as the mall that will create more traffic and degrade residents' quality of life. The other side cites the need to generate economic activity and jobs.
"What you've got here is a clash of the titans," said Desmond Ryan, executive director of the Association for A Better Long Island business lobbying group.
Ryan cites "the politics of paralysis" faced by developers and said he supports the mall because of the region's "desperate need for jobs and tax revenue."
Fears for existing stores
Lee Koppelman, director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies at Stony Brook University and head of the Long Island Regional Planning Board when Taubman first proposed the mall, said it was a bad idea -- then and now.
Koppelman said the planning board determined two decades ago the mall would cannibalize the Miracle Mile from Great Neck through Roslyn and that stores in downtown Syosset and other nearby communities would suffer, too.
The principals in the fight -- mall company chief executive Bill Taubman and Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto -- have staked out opposing positions.
"This land has been zoned commercial since the 1930s, yet today it sits empty" because of opposition from the town and Simon Property Group, Taubman said.
"We are confident that our development is still possible and will provide significant benefits to Long Islanders," he said. "At a time when budgets are tight, the mall would create 5,000 good-paying permanent and construction jobs, generate close to $50 million a year in new tax revenue, and offer exciting new amenities to the area."
Venditto is concerned about quality-of-life issues.
"The Town of Oyster Bay is largely a community of one-family homes, with an appropriate measure of commerce to service the residents who live here," Venditto said. "The town board jealously guards against any development that is not consistent with our suburban quality of life."
"Taubman's effort to build a regional, mega-shopping mall in the heart of our town, with all of the attendant potential for crime, noise, pollution and traffic, is totally and wholly unacceptable."
Court fights began in 2001
For most of the previous decade, the parties fought each other in court, beginning in 2001 after Oyster Bay denied Taubman a special-use permit. The developer convinced judges four times that the denial was unjustified, and the town appealed each decision. In 2008, Acting State Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey Arlen Spinner criticized Oyster Bay for delaying the project and ordered it to issue a permit and approve the project's site plan. The town appealed. In 2009, the Appellate Division overturned Spinner's decision, saying the town was justified in its request for another environmental impact statement.
For the referendum, Taubman is urging a "no" vote so it can try to buy the land itself; it believes adding the property to the Cerro Wire site might better position the company for future court battles, even if it fails to overcome the town's traffic and land-use objections. The town and its allies implore residents to vote "yes" to improve finances in Oyster Bay, which has suffered several recent credit rating downgrades and offered employee buyouts, and increase the chances that mixed-use development will occur there.
The town has spent $25,000 on one mailing; the other players -- the Taubman-funded group Long Island Jobs Now, and the pro-sale Cerro Wire Coalition, partially funded by Simon Property Group -- refuse to divulge what they are spending on their many mailings and TV and radio ads.
Each side takes issue with the other's campaign.
One mailing by Long Island Jobs Now, for example, says the town made a "secret sweetheart deal" with Simon.
Town and coalition officials say court records show Oyster Bay negotiated with Taubman for at least eight months before agreeing to sell the property to Oyster Bay Realty, the group headed by Simon.
Different views of deal
Long Island Jobs Now also says the deal will bring Oyster Bay "millions less" than what it could get. While Taubman has said it would pay "millions" more, town and coalition officials say the company never has specified a price publicly and has tied a purchase to getting town approval to build the mall.
The same Long Island Jobs Now mailing says the partners in Oyster Bay Realty "haven't even disclosed their plans" for the site. The town and coalition say the buyer has said its plans could include senior housing, and medical outpatient and office space.
The town's sole mailing states the sale "will provide a significant cash infusion to the town" and "ultimately" place the property on the tax rolls.
Long Island Jobs Now officials say the town does not note that selling to Taubman also would return the land to the tax rolls and provide a bigger cash infusion. They also note that "ultimately" means up to the eight years the contract with Oyster Bay Realty gives the town to vacate the site.
A mailing by the Cerro Wire Coalition says approving the referendum would "set aside the majority of [the] land for open space."
Long Island Jobs Now officials say Oyster Bay Realty has not released plans for development and its contract does not detail what can be built. But company and town officials say only 15 acres can be developed because the other 39 acres are a capped landfill.
If the referendum is rejected, the town must start over on the sale process. If it is approved, Taubman Centers says it is committed to continuing the fight against the sale -- and for the mall -- in court.
THE WORDING OF THE REFERENDUM
"Shall the resolution of the Town Board of the Town of Oyster Bay to sell 53.783 acres of certain surplus real property for the sum of $32,500,000.00 be approved?"
A "yes" vote will improve the town's shaky financial situation, make it likely that the kind of mixed-use development the town and community prefer for the site will occur there, and decrease the chances that the luxury mall will be built next door.
OPPONENTS SAY ...
A "no" vote will force the town to begin the sale process again and lead to a higher price for the land, and will improve the chances that the mall will be built.
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, chief operating officer Bill Taubman's view of the opposition to Taubman Centers Inc.'s mall plan was mischaracterized.