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Heartland developer Jerry Wolkoff seeks $25.5 million in fee cuts

Artist rendering of the public area with tower

Artist rendering of the public area with tower at the proposed Heartland Town Square in Brentwood for the former Pilgrim State property in Islip Town. Credit: Heartland

Heartland Town Square developer Jerry Wolkoff said he will seek at least $25.5 million in fee reductions to connect to the county’s sewer district, prompting complaints by some Suffolk County legislators that he won’t be paying his fair share to the Southwest Sewer District.

Department of Public Works staff recommended that the Heartland Project pay a one-time fee of $37.5 million to hook into the sewer district, according to minutes of October’s Suffolk County Sewer Agency meeting.

But Wolkoff is moving on two fronts to reduce his sewer connection charges.

He plans in February to challenge Suffolk’s calculation of how much sewage will need treatment. Later this year, he hopes to become the first developer to take advantage of a 50 percent discount on sewer connection fees for mixed-use residential and commercial projects.

Wolkoff said the discounts, including the incentive enacted in 2003, are vital to getting construction started on the ambitious 450-acre project, which he has planned since buying the former Pilgrim State Psychiatric Hospital in Brentwood in 2002.

He called the sewer connection fee “so inconsequential compared to what this does for Long Island, trying to keep our young people and our empty nesters here.”

Some lawmakers said they’d oppose the discounts being sought by Wolkoff, noting that sewer district ratepayers had paid to upgrade Bergen Point Sewage Treatment Plant at a cost of $100 million.

“Ratepayers, including myself, paid for that expansion for the sole purpose of accommodating [Heartland]. There’s no way in the world we should be quibbling about what those sewer connections are going to be,” said Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), whose district includes the Southwest Sewer District.

McCaffrey has proposed legislation to block discounted fees for developers, but the measure died in committee last year.

Islip last year approved Heartland’s first phase, which includes 3,504 apartments, 560,000 square feet of retail space and 626,000 square feet of office space on 113 acres.

Wolkoff is seeking the discounted sewage fees for the entire project, which includes 9,000 residential units.

Wolkoff at the October sewer agency meeting said the county’s wastewater estimate for the project doesn’t account for more efficient modern toilets and appliances that use less water than existed when the project was first proposed in 2002.

Suffolk says Heartland will discharge 2.5 million gallons a day, but Wolkoff says the built-out project will discharge only 1.6 million gallons.

John Donovan, the county’s chief engineer for sanitation, said regardless of how much water is in a flush or a load of laundry, the cost to treat the waste is the same, according to October meeting minutes.

Suffolk County said in October that Heartland should pay the Southwest Sewer District a one-time fee of $37.5 million. That is based on projected usage of 2.5 million gallons per day at a cost of $15 per gallon.

Administration officials said Friday the fee could climb to $49 million, because part of the proposed discharge was not grandfathered in and would be charged at the current rate of $30 per gallon per day.

Wolkoff wants to pay $7.50 on 1.6 million gallons a day, for a total of $12 million.

Other developments connecting to the sewer district, such as Ronkonkoma Hub, pay the $30 rate. Suffolk assigned Heartland a rate of $15 per gallon because it had received conceptual approval before the county raised the connection fee in 2007.

County Executive Steve Bellone’s spokesman Jason Elan said the administration would consider Heartland’s reduction if it passes the Suffolk Legislature.

In December, the county legislature tabled a bill by then-Legis. Kate Browning (D-Shirley) to repeal the 50 percent discount for mixed-use developments.

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague), who along with eight other Democrats and Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip) voted to table the bill, said he didn’t believe it was fair to take away an incentive Wolkoff had relied on.

He also said Heartland will help Suffolk County boost its inventory of apartments.

“This is a huge project that’s creating a little city of its own. It’s a transformative project,” Gregory said.

Former Suffolk County Legis. David Bishop, who sponsored the 50 percent discount, said he wrote the bill to encourage Heartland’s development.

Bishop, a Democrat from Babylon Village who is a lobbyist for Heartland, said he wrote the measure so future legislatures could reject the discount through a vote. He also said he wrote the bill that way because Wolkoff “was a campaign contributor and I didn’t want to be accused of giving him something. I believed in the project, but I allowed future legislatures to make the judgment themselves.”

Wolkoff is among the leading political contributors in Suffolk County.

He has donated $779,000 to state and local candidates and campaign committees in Suffolk since 2011, including $355,000 to the Suffolk County Democratic Committee, according to state Board of Elections records. Wolkoff and one of his companies, Heartland Rental Properties, have donated $115,000 to Bellone since 2012.

Gregory noted that Wolkoff gives to members of both parties and said the campaign contributions play no role in how lawmakers vote.

Wolkoff dismissed the suggestion that his political contributions bought him special treatment.

“If I’m so politically strong, why’d it take me 15 years?” to get Islip’s approval, he asked. “I don’t think politics helped me any little bit.”

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