The 2007 plan to replace the blighted Swezey’s Department Store at Patchogue’s four corners with 291 upscale rentals, office, and retail space caused discord in the village. Civic calm was not restored until Mayor Paul Pontieri’s 2012 election victory. Today, anchored by the apartments, Patchogue is Long Island’s downtown revitalization poster child, but the scars have not healed.
The 2012 campaign centered on the apartment plan, with Pontieri’s opponents claiming the mayor wanted to “bring Brooklyn” to the village, and Pontieri explaining the need to revitalize downtown. The campaign, filled with fearmongering, rancor, and accusations, ended some longtime friendships.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
In 2015, Georgica Green Ventures, a for-profit builder, and the Southampton Housing Authority proposed 51 affordable rentals for low- and moderate-income residents. A change-of-zone proposal immediately encountered unvarnished hostility. A letter to the local weekly called it an “affront to residents who are interested in preserving their home values, current taxable base and bucolic nature of their community.” The writer offered no supporting facts. At a December public meeting, speaker after speaker denounced the proposal, saying it would “destroy our ‘Mayberry,’” and “bring up Island blight and strangers to Speonk.” No one at that meeting thought the proposal stood a chance of approval, with the possible exceptions of David Gallo, the developer, and resident Craig Catalanotto.
For the next two years, Gallo and Catalanotto never stopped talking, and they brought others into their conversations. In April 2017, the Southampton Town Board unanimously approved a change of zone to allow the construction of 38 affordable apartments. There had been give and take among the developer, residents and town — factual and civilized exchanges of ideas. The developer reduced the number of apartments proposed, community leaders dropped their opposition to rentals, and the town board met with stakeholders to achieve compromise.
Speonk is not unique. In places as different as Ronkonkoma, Huntington Station, Farmingdale, and Hampton Bays, compromises allowed developments. What ultimately drove their successes, despite strong disagreements, was the ability of stakeholders to understand facts, engage in meaningful and respectful discourse, and make compromises for Long Island’s betterment. Achieving common ground among developers, residents, and town officials requires positive behaviors, as well as the avoidance of negative ones.
Residents can provide constructive, feasible suggestions to shape developments that better fit into their communities, and developers and municipalities can incorporate the suggestions. To be productive, the discourse has to be civil.
Neighbors who spread lies about proposals, demonize developers, threaten their supporters, who use social media to stoke unsupported fears of school overcrowding, increased crime, and water contamination, and who refuse to bend, even when developers submit reasonable plans, do not have Long Island’s best interests at heart. Similarly, developers who don’t listen to residents and only grudgingly endure the public comment process, who refuse to adjust their proposals when presented with viable suggestions, do not foster the betterment of our region.
This type of collaboration is difficult and time-consuming, but Long Island’s future depends on it.
Jim Morgo is a former deputy county executive and former chief executive of the Long Island Housing Partnership. Terri Elkowitz is senior vice president and northeast regional manager at VHB, a planning, transportation, land development, and environmental services firm.