Tags Posts tagged with "Suffolk County Landbank Corporation"

Suffolk County Landbank Corporation

Conceptual plans for the 126-acre Lawrence Aviation Superfund site in Port Jefferson Station. Graphic from Suffolk County Landbank

Breon Peace, United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York, announced this week the federal government settled upon terms for the future of the Lawrence Aviation Industries Superfund site, ending years of litigation. This agreement will enable the sale of about two-thirds of the 126-acre Port Jefferson Station property by a subsidiary of Suffolk County Landbank.

A 2019 trial had found Lawrence Aviation, with its former CEO and owner Gerald Cohen, in violation of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 and liable to the Environmental Protection Agency, among other claimants, for over $48 million.

‘This settlement will enable a previously contaminated property to be put to uses that will benefit Port Jefferson [Station] and the greater Suffolk County community.’

— Breon Peace

This week’s announcement resolved the last unsettled question on the priority of claims against the property by New York State, Suffolk County and other agencies.

In a statement, Peace said the U.S. District Court approved a consent decree that allows for the sale and redevelopment of the Superfund site.

“This settlement will enable a previously contaminated property to be put to uses that will benefit Port Jefferson [Station] and the greater Suffolk County community,” the U.S. attorney said. “In the process, the EPA will recover at least some of the enormous costs expended in remediating the LAI Superfund site and protecting our environment from hazardous substances.”

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), whose 5th Legislative District includes Port Jefferson Station, has been involved in the deliberations over the site. Reached by phone, she confirmed plans are ahead for demolishing the remaining derelict buildings on the property, an initiative subsidized by the federal government. [See story, “Schumer announces $450K to help demolish buildings at Lawrence Aviation,” Jan. 9, TBR News Media.]

“The first real step we’re going to see is the demolition of the buildings,” she said. “That is long overdue.”

The county legislator regarded the recent developments as a victory for Suffolk County taxpayers who “have been shouldering the burden of the taxes for the property for decades,” she said.

Hahn indicated that, under the plans, the site would be partitioned into three sectors — a third designated for a railyard to facilitate operations for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, another third for an industrial solar farm and the final third for open space. The county legislator added that cleanup efforts, which include two pumping and filtration systems, will likely linger on for decades.

She tied plans for the Lawrence Aviation property to the decades-long proposal to electrify the Port Jefferson Branch of the Long Island Rail Road, referring to the combined efforts for the two projects as “transformational for the region.”

“This is a very early step in the process for electrification,” Hahn said, adding, “The full-scale electrification of the branch is at least a decade away, but it would never happen if we weren’t able to rehabilitate this Superfund site.”

During a June 24 Zoom meeting, the Suffolk County Landbank shared the preferred conceptual plan for the Lawrence Aviation property in Port Jefferson Station with community members. Conceptual plan from Suffolk County Landbank

Members of the nonprofit Suffolk County Landbank Corporation provided an update on the vacant Lawrence Aviation property in Port Jefferson Station during a Zoom meeting June 24. State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), Town of Brookhaven Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook) and representatives from Three Village and Port Jefferson Station/Terryville civic and chamber groups sat in on the meeting.

At the meeting, Sarah Lansdale, SCLBC president, said there are currently two proposals to install solar panels on the developed, industrial section of the property, which presently includes blighted buildings.

The 126-acre Lawrence Aviation property had been vacant for more than 20 years when it was deemed a Superfund site. The airplane parts company that once operated out of the location was accused of leaching chemicals into the ground. A cleanup was completed in 2009 and asbestos was removed from some of the buildings in 2015, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

There are 11 claimants to the property that have been part of a settlement that has been going on for several years, according to Lansdale. The settlement agreement, signed by all claimants, is ready for final review with the U.S. Federal Department of Justice.

Among those claimants is Suffolk County, according to Peter Scully, deputy county executive and SCLBC board member. The county has not received taxes from owners since the early 1990s. Scully said that has translated into more than  $18 million burden for county taxpayers. Lansdale said the EPA’s claim is more than $50 million due to its cleanup.

For the last few years, the SCLBC has been reaching out to local organizations and elected officials to discuss ideas for the future. Discussions have included using a portion of the site as a Long Island Rail Road yard to facilitate electrification of the Port Jefferson Branch. Another suggestion from community members for the site has been preserving part of it as open space.

Lansdale said the landbank has been working with Englebright and the Town of Brookhaven for requests for proposals for the industrial areas, which resulted in the two solar panel responses. She said both proposals are in conjunction with PSEG’s feed-in tariff for commercial energy production for solar. The proposals have been shared with the claimants and elected officials. Claimants have the right to veto the disposition of any offers that are received on the property per a settlement agreement.

The next step is for the landbank subsidiary “to evaluate and take action on approving one of the two proposers, the solar proposers,” Lansdale said. 

“The benefits of solar is that, one, it’s consistent with the Town of Brookhaven overlay district for the Lawrence Aviation overlay, and it also does not produce as much traffic as other uses would on the site,” Lansdale said.

Scully added that since the solar panel setup is not a traffic generator, it may mean that a new access road may not be needed with the use of solar.

The offers are contingent on the buildings on the site being demolished.

“Good news is that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has secured a draft estimate for the cost of the building demolition, and in order to facilitate additional investigation of the site there are positive signs that the DEC is interested in moving forward on demolishing some of the buildings on-site,” Lansdale said.

The landbank has committed $210,000 from its operating reserves fund to partially fund the remaining buildings that the state DEC will not be demolishing, and $200,000 is still needed to demolish the buildings on-site.

Scully said the buildings in general need to be removed for various reasons, including unauthorized presence inside the buildings.

“We need to eliminate the attractive nuisance that these buildings have become,” he said. 

Sal Pitti, president of Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association, asked if the solar panel arrays will take up the whole industrial area or would it be possible that someone else may build on that portion on the site. 

Both proposals are similar, Lansdale said, in that they would take up the currently disturbed area, and it’s unlikely that it will be used for anything else. The solar panels would encompass 34 acres. Lansdale added that 40 acres of the property is currently available for open space. 

As for the LIRR yard, Scully said there have been meetings with MTA representatives and LIRR leaders and there is awareness about the site and interest in it.

“There’s obviously awareness on the part of the Long Island Rail Road that this is a unique opportunity, and if it’s lost then they’ll never get another one for a site on the Port Jefferson Branch,” Scully said. 

The Suffolk County Landbank Corporation has been reaching out to community members for their feedback regarding the Lawrence Aviation property in Port Jefferson Station. Suggestions have included allowing the Long Island Rail Road to have a railyard on the property, installing solar panels on the industrial core of the property and using some parcels for open space. Concept image from Suffolk County Landbank Corporation

The Suffolk County Landbank Corporation has been reaching out to local organizations to discuss ideas for the future of a 126-acre Superfund property in Port Jefferson Station.

The SCLBC has been reaching out to community members to see what they would like to see be done with the property. Recently, the nonprofit’s president, Sarah Lansdale, has been meeting with members of local chambers and civic associations about the property. The SCLBC has also reached out to elected officials such as county Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) and briefed the two school districts affected by the site due to unpaid property taxes: Comsewogue and Three Village.

According to Peter Scully, deputy Suffolk County executive and SCLBC board member, the landbank had been authorized by the state Legislature to facilitate cleanup of blighted sites, and then return the properties to the county tax rolls. The SCLBC is involved in discussions with both the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Federal Department of Justice to talk about the future of the Lawrence Aviation property “and trying to make sure the community has some input into the future use,” Scully said.

One suggestion that has been considered is using a portion of the site as a Long Island Rail Road yard to facilitate electrification of the Port Jefferson Branch, he said. Scully added finding a suitable location along the branch for the railyard has been somewhat of a challenge with most of the communities fully developed.

Lansdale said that the land bank has received information from the Long Island Rail Road about what the environmental impact would be if the Port Jefferson Branch — from Huntington to Port Jefferson — were to be electrified.

“We would avoid approximately 7,800 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year,” Lansdale said.

Other suggestions for the site from the community that have been discussed with the EPA and DOJ have been preserving part of it as open space and the possibility of allowing the section that has been developed in the past being available for redevelopment for light industrial purposes. There have also been suggestions to use the property for solar panels on the industrial core of the property.

According to Scully and Lansdale, the federal government has invested more than $50 million into the property.

“Generally what the federal government will do will be to try and recover as much of the funding that it has expended as it possibly can, and typically when the government does that, it looks at what assets are available that it could use,” Scully said, “And in this instance, the only real asset is the real property. And so, in the absence of any sort of other arrangement or agreement, the federal government would likely just auction the property off.”

Scully said the outreach has been well received by community members.

“I think there’s a general appreciation on the part of these stakeholders that under a more conventional scenario, if the federal government was simply to auction off this property to the highest bidder on the town hall steps, the ability to shape future uses to meet community needs would be lost,” he said.

In a May 19 letter on behalf of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Mark Lesko — the former Town of Brookhaven supervisor — addressed to U. S. Magistrate Judge Anne Shields, Lesko stated that the U.S. and county “have made significant progress toward resolution of their outstanding issues, though not all matters are resolved.” An additional status report will be submitted to the district court on or before June 18.

The property, which was deemed a Superfund in 2000, has been surrounded by controversy since the early 1980s when the Suffolk County Department of Health issued a series of recommendations for the former defense contractor to be compliant with several pollution control laws. An April 2019 article in The Port Times Record reported that in 1999, testing performed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation revealed contamination of groundwater and surface water at the site.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in a 2019 memorandum, LAI used a front-end loader to crush 55-gallon drums containing hazardous substances which led to discharge of waste directly into the ground. The drums were among more than 1,600. Gerald Cohen, former CEO of Lawrence Aviation, was ordered to pay $48 million in cleanup costs for the toxic underground plume caused by materials leached into the ground on the property.

The EPA’s cleanup on the site has included the treatment of contaminated groundwater using two groundwater treatment systems to decrease the size of the groundwater plume. One system is on the property while the other is in the village of Port Jefferson, according to Scully.

Regarding property taxes, Lansdale said 2020 taxes associated with Lawrence Aviation are in excess of $860,000.  She added that “some parcels have been delinquent since 1993.”

“Every year that [taxes] haven’t been paid, Suffolk County taxpayers have been forced to bear the expense of making the other taxing jurisdictions whole,” Scully said, adding that means for school districts, fire districts and libraries.

“The tax burden associated with this property has been extreme,” he said.

While the county would typically take ownership of a property for nonpayment of taxes, when it comes to an environmental impairment such as Lawrence Aviation, the current situation absolves county taxpayers from the liabilities associated with environmental impairment, which would have a higher financial impact.