To Harvey Weisman, the vacant lot on the corner of North Drive and Central Avenue in North Valley Stream is a monument of wasted tax dollars.
Nassau County bought the 0.71-acres of land, sandwiched between townhomes and a gas station, for $1.4 million in 2009, using open space funds from its landmark environmental bond acts. It was supposed to be a community park built and operated by the Town of Hempstead — precious public green space in a densely built area of the county.
But the park never materialized. Today, a worn chain-link fence and padlocked gate keep visitors off a dormant plot of grass and weeds.
“What was the great shakes to buy that thing?” said Weisman, a Woodmere resident who runs a tax lien business and has long studied county land transactions. “It should be put up for sale, restored to the tax rolls and the money should be used to purchase something that is truly environmentally significant.”
Weisman was one of more than three-dozen residents to contact a reporter after Newsday last week published “Public Space/Private Benefit,” an investigation of Nassau’s $100 million in open space purchases from the 2004 and 2006 bond acts.
The residents expressed frustration over some of the deals. They noted how they used to enjoy sites the county fenced off. They said they were unaware of preserves in their own neighborhoods. They described confusion discerning public and private property at others.
The Newsday series found that roughly $30 million in purchases between 2006 and 2012 benefited sellers with ties to county politicians, the property selection process, or both — while revealing that the county never acted on plans to promote and enhance access to many acquisitions.
A number of the sites remain essentially hidden from the public that paid for them, though still connected to the sellers’ remaining private property. In a few cases, the land is completely inaccessible.
“While the issue of political insiders profiting from the sale/preservation of their land is critically important … the ongoing restriction of access to these public lands perpetuates these injustices,” wrote Roger Mummert, a Syosset resident.
On Thursday, Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park), presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature, introduced a bill to mandate increased promotion and access at the county’s open space sites, saying the Newsday findings made him “angry,” and that the county “dropped the ball” by never acting on a plan to improve access.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat who took office in January, said the county “supports access to all open space.”
Bruce Raheb hopes that is the case.
He lives down the block from a 3.4-acre cluster of wetlands on a peninsula in Baldwin Harbor that Nassau bought for $4.8 million in bond act funds. Backers of the purchase, which prevented the development of six luxury homes, saw a public benefit as well as an environmental one: places to walk and sit, and perhaps even launch a kayak.
But due to security, parking and maintenance concerns, the county said it blocked access to the spot at the end of a dead-end street.
Raheb said he and his wife “used to ride our bikes to that parcel and walk out to the point.” He added, “We can no longer do that because of the fence and locked gate. Very sad that we have lost access to this magnificent property. Calling it open space is incorrect.”
In Oyster Bay Cove, Newsday highlighted an 8-acre purchase for $2.9 million that minimally expanded the far eastern end of Nassau’s 200-acre Tiffany Creek Preserve, while the seller retained a portion of his adjacent property.
On the opposite end of the same preserve, readers also noted their difficulty distinguishing between public and private property — a possible byproduct of another bond act purchase that was later returned to private ownership.
In 2007, the county bought 33 acres of the former Northwood Estate for $11 million. The land abutted Tiffany Creek to the north and the west. But in 2011, the county deeded it back to a private owner as part of a land swap that allowed the county to expand its bond act purchase of Old Brookville farmland from 25 acres to 60 acres.
A condition of the deal — proposed by the adjacent private estate holder to “increase privacy for his family,” the county said — was that the land remain undeveloped and host new trails along its edge to not interrupt public access.
Still, the disjointed nature of the public preserve has proved daunting for nature lovers.
“There were all these signs saying ‘private property,’ ” said Ray Pesonen, a Syosset resident who often hikes local nature preserves and said he had trouble navigating Tiffany Creek. “It’s hard because you can’t tell exactly where you are. You think, ‘Whose property is this? Can we go in here or not?’ ”
Also in Oyster Bay Cove, Nassau created a new, roughly 30-acre preserve from parts of three private estates at a cost of almost $12 million. Almost anyone who visits the Red Cote Preserve, just north of Route 25A, marvels at its combination of rolling meadow surrounded by walking paths and untouched woods.
But that’s if you can find it. For years, there was no sign noting its county ownership either at the parking lot entrance off of Yellow Cote Road, or at its most prominent spot — the corner of Route 25A — after the sign there was damaged and never replaced.
The preserve also wasn’t listed on the county website with all the others Nassau operates.
After Newsday began reporting on the series, officials recently placed a small sign and informational kiosk in the parking lot.
But Pesonen and his girlfriend, Lorraine Glover, had never visited it.
“We live 5 minutes from there and are very familiar with places to hike and walk in the woods in this area,” Glover said. “But we never knew it existed.”