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Babylon Town proposes permit to allow more mixed-use development

The permit would free developers to revive depressed commercial downtowns and keep or attract residents to the town, officials say.

The commercial strip on western side of Little

The commercial strip on western side of Little East Neck Road is shown on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017, in West Babylon. It is one of the areas where a new town zoning permit, if approved, could be used. Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

The Town of Babylon has proposed a new zoning permit that would allow developers to construct mixed-use apartment buildings on thousands of small parcels throughout the town, part of a strategy to create dense, lively neighborhoods in small commercial centers.

The permit would be the first of its kind on Long Island, according to a Newsday survey of the 13 towns and two cities. If approved by the town board, it would be the latest innovation in land-use planning to come out of Babylon, which has led redevelopment projects, from sweeping rezonings to streetscape upgrades.

Land-use experts said the permit could foster the type of growth Long Island needs to revive flagging downtowns and attract and retain residents. But current residents have balked at the four-floor apartment buildings it could bring to their neighborhoods.

“The town is on the cutting edge of something here,” said Patricia E. Salkin, a professor of land-use law at Touro Law Center in Central Islip. “Lots of people are going to be watching to see if this works and if it produces the intended results.”

Danielle Leacock, president of the Parkdale Civic Association of North Babylon, which has areas where the permit could be used, raised concerns about the impact new residents in dense developments would have on roads and schools.

“I’m not crazy about it,” she said of the proposal. “North Babylon is a very small community, I don’t think we need 70-unit apartment buildings.”

The town board holds a public hearing on the issue Wednesday. According to a draft of the zoning code that would create the permit, it would:

  • Allow for developments up to 35 feet tall with 35 housing units per acre, or 40 feet tall with 40 units if they offer a community benefit such as a public park
  • Be eligible on almost any lot two acres or smaller in business, industrial or multiresidential districts
  • Supersede other zoning requirements
  • Require buildings to fit in with their surroundings and contain a “compatible mixture of uses”

What those uses are is up to developers to propose.

The message to builders is: “Tell us what you want to do and we’ll tell you if you can do it,” said Amy Pfeiffer, the director of Babylon’s Office of Downtown Revitalization, which has led the permit plan.

The code would grant unique leeway to Pfeiffer’s office and the town planning board, which would have to approve the new permits. The board could waive the code’s few requirements if it deems them unfeasible for a particular project.

Pfeiffer said that flexibility won’t make it easier for undesired or incongruous projects to get approved, as permits will be voided if a property’s use changes, and public hearings will still be required before any are issued.

“If people don’t like a specific proposal, they have the opportunity during that individual public hearing to say so,” Babylon Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer said.

Babylon Town Councilman Tony Martinez said he supports the new permit, but will wait until after the public hearing to decide how he’ll vote.

“It’s going to allow us to address some of these dilapidated, abandoned buildings on commercial” thoroughfares, he said.

Salkin, who has written about corruption in land-use administration in the United States, said she does not think the permit is vulnerable to misuse.

The permit would represent a small-scale companion project to Babylon’s major redevelopment efforts in Wyandanch, Copiague and East Farmingdale, where town leaders have sought to create compact, mixed-use neighborhoods with new housing around train stations.

The target of the new permit is some of the smaller downtowns that dot Babylon’s 53 square miles — business districts that have the amenities necessary for a walkable neighborhood, Pfeiffer said.

Thomas H. Joseph Jr., the president of the Residents of East Farmingdale Civic Association, called the permit “not necessarily a bad idea” but said he would want to judge its merits on a case-by-case basis.

“I’m OK with it, depending on where it’s going,” he said. But “the residents are very adamant about not seeing anything taller than three stories.”

Pfeiffer said if a developer qualified for the permit and for zoning incentives by providing community benefits such as a “diversity of housing options,” a four-story building would “theoretically” be possible.

Pfeiffer’s office started working on the proposal after hearing from landowners with properties just outside special downtown zoning districts that they, too, wanted to build mixed-use apartment buildings, she said.

Nicole Blanda, an attorney based in Melville who represents developers in the town, said her clients might be interested in the permit.

“This is something that will maybe spur more mixed-use projects because it will give them the incentive to do it,” she said. “There is an interest in building higher-density in the town, and I think there is a need in general on Long Island for more apartment-type housing.”

A 2013 study by the Regional Plan Association found that Long Island had fewer available rental units than any other suburban area surrounding New York City, and that many of those available were unaffordable to average middle-income renters.

The problem has been compounded by baby boomers seeking to downsize to smaller housing and the preference of many millennials to live in downtowns, the report said.

Those trends and others have prompted Long Island municipalities including Babylon to embrace “smart growth” — an approach to land-use planning that prioritizes compact, walkable neighborhoods with a mix of housing and transit options, according to Eric Alexander, the director of Vision Long Island, a planning nonprofit.

Babylon has taken a unique approach to fostering smart growth — it is the only town on Long Island with an office solely dedicated to promoting such development, according to a survey of the other towns.

Lawrence Levy, the executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said the office reflects Babylon’s commitment to the new planning paradigm.

“This is a town that’s embracing the future of development, that we’re seeing not just on Long Island, but all over the country,” Levy said.

Whether the proposed permit would catalyze such growth remains to be seen, he said.

Its success “will have a lot to do with how community groups react to specific proposals, how much work developers do in neighborhoods to get people to embrace their proposal and what’s happening in the economy at large,” he said.

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