Cash-starved Suffolk selling Yaphank tract

County Executive Steve Bellone has proposed a resolution

County Executive Steve Bellone has proposed a resolution to force Suffolk's 10 towns to pay $3.4 million in annual tuition costs for local bachelor and graduate degree students who attend Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology. (April 5, 2012) (Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa)

It was once a 230-acre expanse in Yaphank slated to be part of former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy's instant downtown -- a skating rink, an arena, a hotel, 1,200 units of affordable housing and a solar industrial park.

Now, County Executive Steve Bellone has put forward a pair of measures to declare much of the same tract as surplus and sell it for close to $20 million; it's slated to be used as part of a railroad hub. A sale would give the county's revenue-starved budget a badly needed infusion of cash as it faces a $530 million shortfall.

"It's desperately needed money for Suffolk County to make sure deficit projections don't worsen," said Jon Schneider, deputy county executive. And, he added, compared with other projects, it won't change the character of the area or put a burden on the school district.

However, like "Levyland" -- the dismissive term civic leaders gave to the project that Levy had dubbed Legacy Village -- it is a sale that worries some residents of the still largely rural area. "I can't comprehend it," said MaryAnn Johnston, former president of the Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Organization. "It sounds like they're bringing Jamaica to Yaphank," referring to the major Long Island Rail Road hub in Queens.

The purchaser is Oakland Transportation Holdings Llc, a firm connected to Brookhaven Rail Terminal, which is developing a rail spur to move freight, eliminating thousands of truck trips on Long Island highways, that backers hope will help drive economic activity.

Officials say the buyer intends to use the county land for warehouses to store products, including local produce.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation, however, has issued environmental violation notices against the operation, though owners so far have fought them off and paid no fines.

Some officials also have speculated that land in the area -- not necessarily this tract -- could be the future site for an Indian casino -- just think, the Bellagio Bellone.

Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches) questioned the resolution because it calls for a negotiated sale, as opposed to one seeking proposals from all comers. According to the proposed sale resolution, the county's real estate brokers, Newmark Knight Frank, sought out more than 100 buyers and did an online process to solicit bids, but "no adequate offers were received." Under the proposal, the county would net $19.25 million after real estate commissions and fees.

However, Ronald Parr, a developer familiar with the area, said the county is getting a very good price in a still-soft market. "They should take the money and run," he said.

Romaine added that the local school district may back the sale because it would put the land back on the tax rolls and increase the school district's tax base. Dan Tomaszewski, a Longwood school board member, said neither the county nor the buyer has approached the district about the purchase or its impact. He said the school district in the past has remained neutral on the rail project.

Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon), deputy presiding officer, called the sale a "positive step" as a potential economic boon, a tax advantage for schools without the students that would come from new housing, and a step toward closing the budget hole. "It also vindicates [Presiding Officer] Bill Lindsay's concern two years ago that the property was underpriced and worth considerably more than the Levy administration originally claimed," said Horsley.

Levy, however, also took solace in the price tag, noting the county deficit from 2011 came in $20 million higher than expected because he had anticipated the sale of the land last year. "We worked feverishly to get it consummated," he said, "but it was just too fast for the buyers."

Horsley acknowledged the sale will likely be closely scrutinized. "It becomes touchy in that it has not had wide discussion at this point," he said. "And you have to make sure all lawmakers are brought up to speed."

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