To the cheers of a roomful of racing devotees, Suffolk legislative officials Tuesday named a bipartisan committee to find a new site for drag racing on Long Island.
Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) announced the creation of an eight-member committee and gave it the directive of coming up with one or more potential sites within nine months.
Gregory said drag racing has thousands of fans on Long Island with nowhere to race locally — depriving the local economy of as much as $120 million in revenue. Creating a motor-racing complex, he said, also would help combat the problem of dangerous and illegal street racing among youth.
The creation of the committee, which includes lawmakers from both parties, county planners, town officials and drag-racing representatives, comes after lawmakers last year turned down a bid to locate a drag strip in the middle of the 638-acre Yaphank county center.
While sympathetic, officials said the site did not have enough room. The idea also was opposed by a committee that did a master plan for the site.
Backers say that a drag-racing site would require 100 to 250 acres and likely would be located in the less-populated areas of eastern Suffolk. They say that a racing complex that includes a drag strip and facilities for dirt bikes would breed a cottage industry of businesses connected to the racing industry, like parts suppliers and repair shops, generating new income for the county.
Longtime fans say Suffolk once had four drag-racing sites, but the last one, in Westhampton, was closed in 2004 when the land was sold to a developer for a senior citizen community. Advocates say they now have to go out of state — to New Jersey or Maryland — or five hours away to upstate Lebanon to race cars.
“It’s long overdue. We need a place to race — a safe place not on the highway,” said John Cozzali of Mastic, who eight months ago started a website — “Long Island Needs a Drag Strip.”
“We don’t want keep spending our money by going over a bridge out of state,” he said.
Later, during a three-hour hearing, the legislature heard from a parade of 17 farmers pleading for quick passage of a proposed local law to circumvent a recent court ruling that barred construction on farmland to which the county has purchased building rights.
The farmers said they need flexibility to deal with changes in agriculture and farmers need clarity on what is permitted soon, before the growing season begins in spring.
“To this day, we haven’t gotten two attorneys agreeing that we can do this or can’t do that,” said Karl Novak, president of the Long Island Farm Bureau. “Everything is in limbo.”
The lone opponent to the proposal was Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, which brought the lawsuit. He said that the legislature could make any change to the program it wants as long as the public gets to vote on it.
“The society . . . is not out to get farmers,” he said, “But our lawsuit is not just about farming. It’s about the public trust. What that means is that if the people make the law, only the people can change it — not the politicians.”