With the goal of transforming it into an LIRR rail...

With the goal of transforming it into an LIRR rail yard, the MTA has reached a tentative deal to acquire land at the former Lawrence Aviation site in Port Jefferson Station, shown here on Friday. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

The MTA has reached a tentative deal to acquire 40 acres at the former Lawrence Aviation Industries site in Port Jefferson Station with the goal to transform it into an LIRR rail yard, the transit authority’s chairman and Suffolk County officials said.

The creation of a yard there has long been considered a necessary step toward the potential electrification of the reliability-challenged Port Jefferson line.

County officials confirmed on Friday that the nonprofit Suffolk County Landbank Corp.  entered into a contract on Dec. 28 to sell 40 acres of the property to the MTA for $10. The transaction is part of a larger redevelopment that would include a 36-acre solar farm and 44 acres of open space for the Town of Brookhaven, officials said.

At a state budget legislative hearing in Albany on Wednesday, Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman and CEO Janno Lieber revealed that there is “an agreement in principle” to acquire land at the Superfund site, which since 2016 has been eyed by MTA, state, Suffolk County and Brookhaven Town officials as a potential location for a Long Island Rail Road yard.

“There’s an agreement that’s being subject to all the lawyering. There’s all kinds of little issues. We’re going to keep working on it and try to move forward as best we can,” Lieber said, responding to a question from State Sen. Mario Mattera (R-St. James) about the property. “I don’t know everything about those specifics, but I do know that we have an agreement in principle.”

Federal prosecutors last year approved a settlement that made most of the site available for redevelopment, ending years of legal limbo. As part of the settlement, the property was taken over by the Landbank,  through which the county redevelops tax-foreclosed properties.

Under the plan, a private solar energy developer would pay $5 million, and the county and Town of Brookhaven would contribute a total of $2.5 million, Landbank officials said. The money would be divided among the property's various creditors.

In a statement, Suffolk County Executive Edward Romaine said the “transformative project has been in the works for many years, and it is incredibly gratifying to see the partnership between the federal, state and local officials, as well as the community lead to this day.”

The plan has not been finalized, and is contingent on the Environmental Protection Agency lifting the Superfund designation by the end of this year, and on the state rerouting an existing greenway trail running through the property, said Suffolk County Legis. James Mazzarella (R-Moriches), a Landbank board member. 

Mazzarella said the hope is to get a deal closed in time to include a rail yard development in the MTA's next five-year capital budget, due later this year.

“That window is going to close soon,” Mazzarella said. “It would be a darn shame to miss it by a couple months.”

MTA officials would not provide further details on the deal, instead referring to Lieber’s testimony, in which he called the site “the best opportunity to create a yard” for the Port Jefferson line. 

Service on the branch  has been constrained because its tracks are not electrified. The diesel engines that serve Port Jeff commuters are typically less reliable than electric trains, which make up the majority of the LIRR's fleet. Diesel passengers are often required to transfer to and from electric trains into and out of New York City.

Although the MTA has not committed to electrifying the branch — a potentially expensive proposition — it has studied capacity improvements on the branch, and included electrification of the line among several projects under consideration in its recently published 20-Year Needs Assessment. 

Lieber said building a yard in Port Jefferson is a “precondition” for someday growing service for commuters. “It is a necessary first step,” he said.

Lawrence Aviation was declared a Superfund site in 2000 with the discovery of trichloroethylene, a solvent used to remove paint and grease. Inspectors also found acid waste, oils, sludge, metals and other toxic debris. The company closed in 2003. The company and its owner, Gerald Cohen, were ordered in 2019 to pay $48.1 million to the Environmental Protection Agency to pay for  removal of more than 16,000 tons of contaminated soil. Cohen  died in 2020, Newsday has reported.

With Carl MacGowan

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