By Sara-Megan Walsh
Editor’s Note: After this article was published, Villadom Corp. completely withdrew its application for a change of zone for the proposed Elwood Orchard project. Read more here.
Sitting outside the home of Huntington resident Janice Buckner, her quiet yard is heavily shaded by trees. There’s the sound of a bird singing somewhere in the surrounding forest. She fears Town of Huntington officials may allow the trees to be torn down to make way for a commercial development, at the cost of her tranquility, the wildlife and most important to her – the water quality.
“The Town of Huntington is the guardian of this land,” Buckner said. “How can they let someone develop next door to the park and pollute the park’s water and my water?”
“My hope is not just to stop Villadom, I want to see that land protected and preserved.
– Janice Buckner
Buckner, 67, owns three acres of property on Manor Road surrounded on three sides by the 135-acre Berkley Jackson County Park. It’s a few hundred feet down the road from Villadom Corp.’s site for a proposed 486,380-square-foot mixed-use commercial center. The developer has filed a request to be heard by Huntington Town board to change the zoning on nearly 50 acres from R-40 residential to C-5 and C-6 commercial. Buckner said she plans to fight it and is prepared to sue if necessary.
“My hope is not just to stop Villadom,” she said. “I want to see that land protected and preserved.”
A self-identified conservationist, Buckner first attempted to sell two acres of her property to Suffolk County to add to the neighboring county park.
“It is my desire to see the land conserved,” she wrote in a June 2013 letter to county officials, expressing concern for the local wildlife and water quality.
Buckner said she had to turn down the county’s offer of $60,000 for the land, which was appraised to have a value of $178,000 to $180,000, as a single mother raising two daughters who was facing home foreclosure. She also contacted Peconic Land Trust, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve Long Island farms, natural lands and heritage, to see if they were interested inpurchasing it.
Following a neighbor’s advice, Buckner turned to selling the density flow rights, or total gallons of sewage permitted to be produced by a development, for the back two acres of her property to the Town of Huntington in October 2014 for $320,000, which helped stave off impending foreclosure. She kept ownership of the land, but because of the rights sale, it cannot be developed.
“Elwood Orchard will comply with all state and local water protection standards, and the proposed use does not present an adverse impact on groundwater.”
– Mark Smith
Huntington Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R) said the town has a program under which a property owner can make a portion of their land into a conservation easement and sell the flow rights, allowing those much-needed credits to be bought up by a commercial or residential developer.
In Buckner’s unique case, her property’s rights were sold directly to the town. Her January 2015 contract of the conservation easement with the town includes restrictions against dumping trash or liquids and cutting down trees or plants.
The 2015 contract with the town states her land has potential environmental value, and Buckner said she believes, by association, the entire swath of virgin forest that extends onto Villadom’s property. She pointed to a section of the 2015 contract that states “a portion of which as ecological, scientific, groundwater recharge, scenic, educational, recreational and/or aesthetic value in its present state as natural area.”
She said she is bewildered that Huntington officials are considering a developer’s plan for a mixed-use commercial and retail center with a 90,000 square-foot fitness center that would be larger than Nassau Coliseum. She said she fears it would pollute the land and underlying aquifer she’s tried to conserve.
“Elwood Orchard will comply with all state and local water protection standards, and the proposed use does not present an adverse impact on groundwater,” said Mark Smith, a spokesman for Villadom.
Smith said the proposed plans will include an on-site treatment system to reduce nitrogen discharge into the local groundwater and will be subject to future review and approval of the Suffolk County Health Department. In addition, the proposal calls for 12 acres of the land to be kept as a greenbelt.
“In light of the new information received by the town, the May 17 public hearing on the Villadom project must be adjourned.”
– Chad Lupinacci
Buckner isn’t the only one expressing concern. Robert Santoriello, superintendent of the Greenlawn Water District sent an April 20 letter to Huntington Town officials asking for a list of questions the water district raised on the project dating back to 2013 be answered. The list includes more details on the on-site sanitary wastewater treatment plant.
Huntington Planning Director Tony Aloisio said if the zoning change is approved, the developer would have to submit a more detailed site plan to the town’s planning department and Suffolk County Planning Commission.
Buckner is focusing her energy on organizing a rally against Villadom’s proposal. Huntington town officials announced the May 17 hearing was adjourned after the developer requested a chance to amend its application at 1:10 p.m. May 16.
“In light of the new information received by the town, the May 17 public hearing on the Villadom project must be adjourned,” said Lupinacci. “The hearings may only be rescheduled to a later date at the discretion of the town board.
Buckner may have to wait longer to find out if the town will grant the zone change, but she’s prepared
“I’ve spoken to a lawyer,” She said. “I know that I have a case.”