The John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility in Yaphank. (July...

The John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility in Yaphank. (July 31, 2012) Credit: Johnny Milano

The controversial $23 million sale of the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility faces a new hurdle -- the property needs a zoning change from Brookhaven Town once the 264-bed complex goes private.

The 14-acre parcel on which the five-story Yaphank building sits is zoned A-1 residential, which limits development to houses on one-acre lots. Until now, the nursing home has been allowed to operate because county government is exempt from local zoning rules.

Town officials say the property could require a town board vote to be rezoned from residential to nursing home/hospital use or may have to obtain a "change of use" variance from the town's zoning board of appeals. County officials, including planning director Sarah Lansdale, will meet with town planning officials Friday to discuss the zoning issues connected to the sale.

Jon Schneider, deputy county executive, said whatever changes are needed are "largely technical issues" since the nursing home has been in existence for years.

Supervisor Mark Lesko described the session as a "staff-level meeting" to hash out issues since "there was no coordination" before the pending sale. "It's not entirely clear what they are going to need until we have an application and know what they want to do," Lesko said.

The zoning scramble comes as Suffolk legislators weigh selling the nursing home to Israel Sherman and his nephew Samuel, who run 13 for-profit nursing homes statewide. The sale aims to help close Suffolk's budget gap estimated as high as $300 million.

In addition to the zoning issue, some critics have raised concerns about unusual part of the sale contract that calls for the county "to make its best efforts" for the buyers to get property tax and sales tax abatement from the Suffolk County Industrial Development Agency.

The agency, with County Executive Steve Bellone's encouragement, recently adopted new rules that for the first time would allow it to lower a business' tax bill rather than only freeze taxes and limit increases over a number of years.

Schneider said the new owners would apply for tax breaks by year's end once the deal closes, but said there is no agreement on the level of tax breaks to be sought.Schneider added he has "no idea" about the maximum level of tax breaks for which new owners could be eligible. "Right now zero taxes are being paid," Schneider emphasized.

Michael Balboni, of the Greater New York Health Care Facilities Association, said the Shermans see the sale as a partnership with the county to keep the nursing home from closing and to save 200 jobs, which merits consideration for the tax breaks available to any private business.

He said Shermans hope the county will help them "put their best foot forward" with the Suffolk industrial development agency.

But Brookhaven town board member Connie Kepert said she's concerned about tax breaks and said the town should use the zoning issue as leverage to make sure new owners "pay their fair share" of taxes. "We have to stop handing out tax abatements like candy," Kepert said.

"We give tax abatements to encourage economic growth, but why in God's name would we give tax credits for a facility that is already here."Paul Sabatino, who has represented county nursing home advocates in lawsuits, said tax breaks contradict the rationale for unloading Foley. "They say they can't afford to keep subsidizing the nursing home. Now they are looking to subsidize a private operator," he said.

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