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Nassau shouldn't buy political friend's land in Freeport

Four acres that once held the Brooklyn Water

Four acres that once held the Brooklyn Water Works plant in Freeport are up for sale to Nassau County for $6.2 million. The county legislature is to vote on the sale Monday, May 21, 2012. (Photo, May 4, 2012). Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin/Kevin P Coughlin

When Nassau County set the taxable value on the four-acre Brooklyn Water Works site in Freeport, it came up with just over $2 million. But if the Nassau County Legislature votes Monday to buy the parcel back from businessman Gary Melius, it will pay $6.2 million.

That's a nice profit; Melius purchased the land from the county for $1.4 million in 1986.

The owner of Oheka Castle in Huntington, where political fundraisers have been held for Nassau Executive Edward Mangano, Melius is a developer whose legendary poker games host a who's who of local power brokers. He's also said to be a force behind the Nassau County Independence Party, whose ballot line is prized for the decisive votes it can carry, though Melius says he has no official role in the party.

Having a county triple its estimation of your property's value between its assessment and its sale is a pretty good deal, but this is not all that unusual with commercial property. That's because the county tax assessment is based on current use, and the parcel currently has none. Valuations from appraisers -- the county got two, of $6.3 million and $6.9 million -- are based on the land's "highest and best use." Since the parcel is bordered by Sunrise Highway, the Baldwin train station and a 21-acre county-owned Brookside nature preserve, the highest and best use, theoretically, is intense commercial or residential development, which would make the land quite pricey.

But what makes this look like a sweetheart deal for a politically connected businessman is the fact, that after a quarter-century of energetic development attempts, the highest use Melius has achieved for the property is eyesore.

He originally planned to turn its gigantic derelict pumping stations into condos, but says the residential real estate market tanked before he could finish the project. Melius then proposed a nursing home, but was stymied by environmental groups that argued the project would harm the preserve. His last stab at developing the parcel was a six-story, 121-unit apartment building, which neighbors opposed.

The South Shore Audubon Society is cheering the proposed conversion of Melius' acres to open space, with money approved through a 2006 environmental and open space fund. The property is on a list of 26 tracts to target for purchase, compiled when the county set up the fund. You can, perhaps, argue that open space is a reasonable use for the land. You just can't argue it's the "highest and best" use appraisers considered in establishing their figures, or that $6.2 million is a sensible price for this purpose.

The county, by buying the property, would take the parcel off the tax rolls -- costing itself not only the high purchase price, but hitting the school district and Freeport Village in the wallet, too. If developed, the property could generate a fortune in taxes in perpetuity, but once preserved would contribute nothing.

If this parcel is to be added to a preserve, taxpayers deserve a far lower price. If its real value lies in its commercial possibilities, taxpayers deserve a far better use.

Either way, they deserve to see this deal voted down Monday.

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