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Majority of speakers tell Islip Town Planning Board they favor massive Heartland Town Square project

People attend a meeting of the Town of

People attend a meeting of the Town of Islip Zoning Board regarding the proposed Heartland development project on the evening of April 16, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

A majority of the residents and local and community officials who spoke at Thursday night's public hearing in front of the Islip Town Planning Board said they favored the massive Heartland Town Square project -- 9,000 apartments, 1 million square feet of retail and 3 million square feet of office space to be built over the next three decades.

It's been 13 years since developer Jerry Wolkoff purchased 450 acres of land in Brentwood and created a $4 billion vision of a mini-city out of a shuttered psychiatric hospital. Since then, Wolkoff has been battling criticism from residents over concerns such as traffic and what they see as an unprecedented change to the Island's suburban landscape.

Some of Wolkoff's questioners at the hearing, including Islip Town Planning Board member Joseph DeVincent, asked if Wolkoff was seeking the zoning change necessary to begin construction so he could then sell the parcels once the ruling sizably increases the property's worth. Wolkoff purchased the land from the state for $20 million in 2002.

The project needs Islip Town Board authorization to establish a Pilgrim State Planned Redevelopment District, a zone change from the current Residential AAA District, and the adoption of Heartland's master plan.

Wolkoff, at the end of the 4 1/2-hour meeting, which at its height saw about 250 people, told the board in front of about a dozen people left in the auditorium at Islip Town Hall West that he is committed to seeing his project through.

"We've been here too long," he said. "We're not going away."

Concerns over the megadevelopment that night spilled over into Huntington Town. Councilwoman Susan Berland, speaking on behalf of that town's board, said while the members are "pro-development," they questioned when improvements to congested Commack Road will happen and who will pay for them. Approval of Heartland will bring increased congestion to Commack Road, as well as the Sagtikos Parkway and Long Island Expressway.

Of the 42 people who spoke at the meeting, 29 testified in favor of the project, six opposed it -- mostly residents living on or near Commack Road -- while the others had stipulations attached to their endorsement, such as the inclusion of bike lanes and a definitive number of affordable housing units written into the plan.

Some, such as Joel Perez, a Brentwood resident for more than 20 years, see Heartland as the long-awaited answer to the hamlet's economic woes.

"There's pros and cons to everything that we do, everything we build in life," Perez said. "I think our community is going to be developed for the better . . . I'm just excited for the future of our community."

The Islip Town Planning Board unanimously reserved decision on the zone change and is expected to deliver a recommendation to the town board at a future meeting. The project's future ultimately lies with Islip's council, which has the final say.

This was the third public hearing on this project -- the first was in 2004 in front of the Planning Board for a State Environmental Quality Review Act hearing, and the second in 2009 in front of the town board, for the same purpose. The town board adopted the SEQRA process in November.

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