This undated image shows an advertisement for the First National...

This undated image shows an advertisement for the First National Bank and Trust Company, located on Sunrise Highway in Freeport. Credit: Courtesy of the Freeport Historical Society

In 1929, an Art Deco Flatiron-style building rose on Long Island, the tallest structure east of Jamaica.

Originally the First National Bank and Trust Company, and later known as the Meadow Brook Bank, the building has stood as a landmark in Freeport, a symbol of the area’s history and past commercial success.

Now, the storied landmark is at risk of being a symbol of Freeport’s lack of innovation, its rejection of its residents’ interests, and its inability to conduct village business in a trustworthy way.

It’s an ugly story.

Landmark site

The building and four acres owned by the village sit just south of the Freeport train station and bus depot. The building’s height made it a key landmark for aviators. It was even used as an observation tower for enemy plane spotting during World War II.

The structure was built at a time without many cars, when the rail was the ideal way to traverse the Island.

And now, as we worry about too many cars, it is time to make public transit the ideal once more.

Black and white postcard of the First National Bank and...

Black and white postcard of the First National Bank and Trust Company located on Sunrise Highway. The Freeport Railroad station can be seen behind the bank building. Credit: Courtesy of the Freeport Historical Society

This central slice of Freeport is a perfect spot for the kind of innovative development Long Island desperately needs. Imagine a project that could incorporate the historic facade, with much-needed, well-priced rental housing, and perhaps a community center or some commercial space.

Over the years, plans have come and gone. As of a few months ago, the village was in contract with DiNoto Group, a Woodbury-based developer that planned to build 250 apartments and retail space at the site.

Then there was a sudden, dismaying change of plans. The village terminated DiNoto’s contract and in April, the village board of trustees voted to sell the land to Atlantic Auto Group for $6.3 million, so the company could build a 40,000-square-foot Lexus dealership.

Freeport officials chose an auto dealership, just steps away from public transit that offers a 45-minute commute to Manhattan. They made this choice for a community with its share of car lots and at a location where housing and retail could have a far greater economic impact. This was their crimped vision at a time when public officials elsewhere are trying to attract younger residents to a suburb with a declining population.

It’s awfully depressing that creating meaningful development around public transit still is a hard, uphill slog, especially without enlightened leadership.

Such leadership could find and push for the right project, one that looks to Freeport’s future, and incorporates the bank building as much as possible. It’s a bit of the region’s historic past, so much of which has been torn down.

Disturbing process

Then there’s the process — which, quite simply, stinks.

Unusually, and unfortunately, the village sped through its own approvals. By May, the zoning board approved the plan. Whether residents didn’t know or didn’t care, there was little public outcry at that point.

In June, the Nassau County Planning Commission voted unanimously to reject the proposal. It seemed like a big win for smart growth. Only a supermajority of the village zoning board could override the county commission’s decision.

By July, the project was garnering attention. Dozens of residents gathered to speak at a village planning board hearing — only to find a note on the door saying it was adjourned.

Then came a July 11 zoning board meeting. The meeting agenda didn’t include the bank property on Sunrise Highway. During the public meeting, there was no mention of it, no discussion of it, and no vote specifically on it.

Here’s where things got weird — and extremely disturbing.

After the meeting, village officials wrote to the county commission, and said the zoning board had overridden the county’s decision.

Village officials told the Newsday editorial board that during the meeting, the zoning board “reaffirmed the minutes” of the previous meeting. And by reaffirming the minutes, they said, the board reaffirmed all votes and all decisions from the previous meeting. Including the vote for the Lexus dealership.

Read that again.

There was no public notice, discussion, explanation, or mention of the property. It is unclear what legal ground the board had to make that move. Even if it’s technically legal, it’s not within the spirit of any law or open government.

And, it’s disrespectful and deceitful behavior by village officials.

Nowhere to go?

Nassau County says there’s nothing it can do. The village planning board, which finally held a hearing last week where dozens of residents forcefully spoke out against the project, still has to vote, but only on the site plan. While county legislature Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams has spoken up against the project and process, fellow lawmaker Debra Mulé, who represents the area that includes the property, has been silent. In response to a Newsday inquiry Friday, she said the car dealership was a “missed opportunity” and workforce housing would be better.

It’s time for village leaders to say no. Freeport Mayor Robert Kennedy’s support for this is particularly disappointing.

Zoning board members could say they want to vote again. Planning board members could say no, even if it’s about the site plan. The village trustees could say no. Village residents, civic groups, or other stakeholders could file a lawsuit, and stop the insanity themselves.

This is the wrong thing to build, and the wrong way to build it.

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