It's not quite the endless savagery of the Hundred Years' War, but the epic struggle over a mall proposed for the 39-acre Cerro Wire site in Syosset has begun to feel like Long Island's version of that bloody conflict.
For almost two decades Taubman Centers Inc., one of the world's largest luxury mall owners, has fought to build there. Arrayed against it has been a coalition: Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto, neighbors who oppose such a large development, and a Taubman competitor that has been the primary funding source of the opposition.
Simon Property Group, which owns the Walt Whitman mall in Huntington and the Roosevelt Field mega-complex in Garden City, has consistently worked to stop this project. Joining Simon's side in this most recent skirmish -- centered the Town of Oyster Bay's sale of an adjoining 54-acre parcel -- are Castagna Realty, owner of the high-end Americana Manhasset center, and the Albanese Organization, a major regional builder. These entities formed Oyster Bay Realty LLC to oppose Taubman.
The costs of this war, fought by lawyers, public relations masters, community organizers and lobbyists, have been extraordinary. Company officials say Taubman has spent as much as $150 million. Opponents have kicked in far less, but will have to invest tens of millions more if their current play pays off. But that's all on their dimes.
For Long Island taxpayers, the worst hit has been the one the tax base and job market have taken from the stymieing of a development that should have been allowed to go forward long ago. At this point, by some estimates, years of lost tax revenue have cost the Syosset school district at least $50 million, the county $25 million and the town $6 million, and that doesn't include lost sales tax and the economic activity that building the mall and staffing its 2,000 positions would have created.
Now comes perhaps the final battle, and whose Waterloo it will be is anybody's guess. On Aug. 20, Oyster Bay town residents will vote on whether to sell its 54-acre parcel adjacent to the Cerro Wire site. The town, reeling from a depressed economy and too much debt, needs the $32.5 million it would receive for selling the property, which holds the town's Department of Public Works complex.
The referendum question reads: "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?" Voters should approve it -- but resist the spin about what that vote means.
A yes vote for the sale to proceed will be portrayed as a public rejection of the mall development, but it doesn't have to mean that. This latest battle started when Venditto began looking for some quick cash. The DPW parcel came to mind, but what was it worth? The town guessed $17 million to plug a hole in its 2013 budget. A later appraisal put the value at $26 million. But when Taubman and its opponents came on the scene, the bids jumped above $30 million.
The two sides never bid against each other directly. Oyster Bay Realty would take the land "as is," while Taubman's offer, although never for a specific amount, was only good if it came with the permits to build the mall. In the end, Taubman lost out because its two adversaries, Venditto and Oyster Bay Realty, basically wanted the same thing: no mall.
When Taubman didn't win, it went to court, arguing that the land sale was improper. The company lost and initiated a campaign to derail the sale by forcing a public referendum that will cost the town $200,000. Had Taubman won the bid, the company likely would have used the extra land to rebut the town's arguments that the proposed mall is too dense. It also would have given the mall better traffic access from Jericho Turnpike. Oyster Bay Realty says it will pursue "mixed-use development," but has put forth no specific vision.
Now the region is being subjected to a no-holds-barred fight on TV and in mass mailings saying vote "yes" or vote "no" on referendum day. These warriors, familiar with each other's strategies, have had similar fights for dominance across the nation, but this one wins for intensity.
The best outcomes are complex and involve compromise, but could make everyone emerge a victor.
The referendum ought to pass, and the land should be sold to Oyster Bay Realty. The town needs the money and it's unlikely it will ever get a better price for the parcel.
Town officials must ensure that development there moves forward. Oyster Bay Realty says it is ready to start once the town moves its operations to other locations. The land, with its proximity to highways, should be put to a higher use than storing the town's plows, salt and animal shelter. Get it back on the tax rolls.
Development should also go forward on the Cerro Wire parcel, for the same reasons. Taubman, too, is a responsible developer and the proposed mall never presented the myriad ills opponents ascribed to it.
It's time to move forward.
Venditto has, during his eight terms as supervisor, fought growth and development. He remembers with nostalgia the pastoral place where he grew up, and has endeavored to maintain it.
But massive tracts of desirable land shouldn't lie fallow in tribute to Long Island's past. It's bad for the tax base. It's bad for the job market. A yes vote on Aug. 20 can start moving the town forward. But only accompanied by progressive, sensible development.
The Cerro Wire War has gone on too long. So has the fight against change and growth.