St. John's University wants Islip Town approval for a $40-million plan to preserve the former Bourne Estate it owns in Oakdale -- and proposes funding it by building 350 housing units on 12 acres of the property.
The university said the improvements will stabilize the 114-year-old mansion, carriage house, boathouse and marina built in the late 1890s by Frederick Gilbert Bourne, president of the Singer Sewing Machine Co.
The concept -- which requires a zoning change to formalize the property's landmark status -- has been greeted warmly by town officials and residents eager to save the Gilded Age mansion and minimize the amount of development.
Under present zoning, the university has the right to sell 103 one-acre single housing parcels -- an idea dreaded by nearby residents.
"What they're proposing . . . is a good concept," Stan Feldman of the Oakdale Civic Association said at a town planning board meeting last week. "At this point, we're in favor."
Officials say the sale or rental of new homes will provide ongoing revenue to pay for much-needed deferred maintenance, including a new roof and restoration of the mansion's upper floors. The new housing would be built east of the mansion.
University officials say they need to spend $5 million annually to maintain the property. While parts of the mansion remain in use, other areas -- where mold and leaking plumbing have rotted walls -- are closed to the public.
The university owns about 170 acres of what was Bourne's 1,000-acre estate, at 500 Montauk Hwy. The original estate stretched two miles east to west along the Great South Bay and included land that is now the West Sayville County Golf Course, the Suffolk County Marine Museum and many private homes.
"We are trying to generate revenue in a variety of creative ways that serve the nature and beauty of the site, while creating an economic benefit to St. John's and the outlying community in order to maintain the historic structures on the site," said Brij Anand, the university's vice president of facilities.
If approved, the plan would represent the sixth time in 15 years the town has granted such preservation status, attorney Eliot Bloom said.
The zoning change would give the town greater say in the architectural style of the new construction, even over details such as the type of bricks used, planning commissioner Dave Genaway said.
St. John's wants to maintain its current uses -- educational programs and hiring out parts of the property for weddings and conferences. But if the project goes as planned, it hopes the mansion's second-floor can be used as boutique hotel accommodation and that a private operator may be able to run a restaurant out of the boathouse.
Oakdale resident Richard Sullivan said he was initially "totally against" any form of added housing. "But when you look at the mathematics of it . . . the only other alternative is for St. John's to sell and have it torn down by a new buyer."