The former campus of Dowling College, seen here in February...

The former campus of Dowling College, seen here in February 2022. The campus has been unused since Dowling closed in 2016.  Credit: Johnny Milano

The owner of the shuttered Dowling College campus has missed a court-mandated deadline to discuss redevelopment plans with Oakdale residents, to the dismay of some community members. 

Owner Mercury International settled a long-standing tax dispute with Islip Town in December, reaching an agreement that requires the company to engage with the community and elected officials about the future of the historic property, a former Vanderbilt estate.

The settlement, which state Supreme Court Justice John J. Leo signed Dec. 19, reduced tax payments on the former Oakdale campus and three smaller parcels by nearly 80%. It also required Mercury to meet with Islip officials by Jan. 20 and Oakdale residents by March 30 to discuss redevelopment of the property.

Bram Weber, an attorney representing Mercury, said last week that communications so far with the town have been focused on how Mercury will secure the property. The company has provided two security proposals to the town, which sent back “very thorough and detailed questions,” he said.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The owner of the shuttered Dowling College campus has missed a court-mandated March 30 deadline to discuss redevelopment plans with Oakdale residents.
  • A settlement reached this winter reduces tax payments on the former Oakdale campus and three smaller parcels by 80%. It also requires owner Mercury International to engage with the community and elected officials about the future of the property.

  • An attorney for Mercury called Oakdale civic leaders two days after the deadline, but residents say a “community sit-down” is still needed.

“That’s really why we have not moved forward” with a planned civic meeting, he said. “We want to make sure we can put that security plan into place” before focusing on plans for the property.

Mercury is “committed to engaging with the community," Weber said.

Weber informally spoke with representatives from two local groups, the Oakdale civic and historical societies, on Monday about their concerns for the property.

Oakdale Civic Association president David Chan said the phone conversation allowed him to bring Weber up to speed on security concerns at the estate, but Mercury still needs to have “a community sit down.”

Maryann Almes, president of the Oakdale Historical Society, said she's “cautiously optimistic” after speaking with Weber on Monday, but doesn't feel the phone call fully satisfies the requirement outlined in the court settlement. 

Almes said she asked Weber to include the historical society in future communications by at least providing minutes of meetings discussing the iconic Idle Hour estate, built by railroad heir William K. Vanderbilt. She also suggested increased patrols of the mansion during school vacations.

Mercury met with Islip Town officials as required in January to discuss ways “to secure the property as a whole," Islip spokeswoman Caroline Smith said at the time.

The tax deal requires Mercury to use $250,000 from the settlement to upgrade security and maintenance at the former campus, which has been unused since Dowling closed in 2016 following years of mounting debt and declining enrollment.

Islip officials and Oakdale residents have complained in recent years that Mercury failed to outline plans for the property and adequately care for it, even as the scenic 25-acre campus and its historic Idle Hour mansion became the targets of vandals and trespassers.

On Monday, Smith said the town’s “foremost concern” remains securing the property from vandalism and declined to weigh in on Mercury missing the deadline for community engagement.

“We were all pretty excited when we saw the town and Mercury came to a legal settlement back in 2023 to protect the mansion … and reach out to the community,” said Tom Alfano, an Oakdale resident who wrote an email to the town complaining about the missed deadline.

“Lo and behold, they missed the day to reach out to the community,” he added. "So my question to the town is, OK, 'What do you plan on doing about it?' ”

Alfano also noted that the Islip Town zoning map still does not reflect legislation passed in October to protect the mansion with a planned landmark preservation overlay district, a zoning designation commonly used to preserve historic areas.

The Islip Town Board passed the legislation for a second time after community outcry when residents discovered the law originally passed in 2018 was never finalized.

Smith said the legislation passed in October is in effect.

The tax dispute that led to the settlement — and, subsequently, the March deadline for community engagement — began shortly after Mercury and its corporate parent, NCF Capital Inc., purchased the site out of bankruptcy in 2017 for $26.1 million.

Mercury, which is owned by Beijing-based China Orient Asset Management Co. Ltd., contended the college's former main campus on Idle Hour Boulevard and three smaller parcels should be exempt from town property taxes because the company intended to use it for unspecified educational purposes.

The settlement found Islip officials had over-assessed the value of the parcels and cut Mercury's tax bill from $6.49 million to $1.35 million.

The deal directed the Suffolk comptroller's office, which collects taxes on delinquent properties, to reimburse Mercury for excess payments, an amount that was not specified in court documents.

“I think the concern is that Mercury is going to get this money and nothing will happen,” Chan said. “Everybody was ecstatic when the agreement came out … but now I think we’re worried.”

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