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We Are Smithtown

An aerial view of Smithtown captures the Smithtown Main Street area. Photo from Town of Smithtown

Smithtown held a public hearing this Tuesday, Aug. 3, to discuss the new draft master comprehensive plan that could possibly amend the town’s zoning regulations to align them more with current land usage.

If put into place, a new zoning designation will be created, called a Multi-Family Zone. The Multi-Family Zone will allow for low to mid-rise residential development with underutilized lots to create housing types such as apartments, townhouses, senior living, assisted living or traditional mixed-use in the hamlets.

The plan also focuses on transit-oriented development near the Long Island Railroad stations and improvements to recreational facilities townwide.

While some comments from residents showed support of the plan, the feedback was mainly negative from the room, saying the underutilized lots will be taken advantage of by developers and should be used to create parks and preserve the town.

“This comprehensive plan, is nothing more than permission for developers to build tall and to build dense,” said James Bouklas, a resident of Smithtown and president of the community advocacy group We Are Smithtown. “This is a plan for more gridlock, traffic, apartment buildings everywhere, mega-developments and population boom after 50 years of stability.”

Many residents discussed a survey the town put out for community members a few years ago to input their thoughts regarding existing conditions and their outlook on Smithtown’s future. More than 1,100 community members responded.

“You took a survey, and you know what the residents want and don’t want to see in town,” said Mike Cooley, a Nesconset resident and vice president of We Are Smithtown. “Anyone who took the time to read the plan can see the opinions and concerns from residents, including a clear vote against high-density housing. The message is clear, Smithtown is for sale.”

Other residents attended to applaud the plan, hoping that it will bring an energetic feel to the town and attract a younger crowd, much like Huntington and Patchogue does.

“I think the decision for Smithtown to not adapt is risky,” said Barry Felix, a Melville resident. “Young individuals like myself are seeking vibrant communities to grow in, a community that is like the one represented in the comprehensive plan. If Smithtown doesn’t move ahead, it will fall behind.”

Thanking the board for listening to the community, Tony Tanzi, president of the Kings Park Chamber of Commerce, was thrilled the town was taking input from the public into heavy consideration when constructing the plan.

“I want to say on behalf of my children, who I hope want to stay here because of what you’re doing, thank you,” Tanzi said.

The next public hearing will be held on Tuesday, Aug. 10. The public is highly encouraged to attend and comment on the draft plan.

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn speaks at a May 13 press conference while George Hoffman and Herb Mones from the Three Village Civic Association and Judith Ogden, spokesperson for Saint James-Head of the Harbor Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, look on. Photo by Rita J. Egan

On a bright spring day May 13, community advocates were joined by a Suffolk legislator in St. James to shine some light on one county commission’s procedures.

At the Suffolk County Planning Commission’s May 5 meeting, the commission members reviewed revisions to a proposal to subdivide the 75-acre Flowerfield property in St. James owned by Gyrodyne LLC for development. Despite residents from Brookhaven and Head of the Harbor, which is a village in the Town of Smithtown, submitting letters and speaking during the public session, remarks from people in those areas were discarded according to the committee’s guidelines.

The county commission ultimately didn’t pass the resolution, 5-4, and the decision goes back to Smithtown’s Planning Board without a recommendation from the county.

Suffolk County legislator and deputy presiding officer, Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), and community advocates called for reforms at the May 13 press conference.

Hahn exploring options

“As chair of the Legislature’s Economic Development, Planning and Housing committee, I was deeply disappointed in the planning that has been on display during the review of this proposed project,” Hahn said. “I am exploring options as to what can be done legislatively to fix the key problem identified during the Gyrodyne planning debacle.”

Hahn said she believes conditions need to be broadened so neighboring municipalities can object to a project being reviewed. She also suggested that the distance from 500 feet of a proposed development should be changed regarding those whose comments could be considered.

“I would imagine there could be a size and scope scale that would be maybe up to a 2-mile radius of important projects,” she said. “If I can run it in less than a couple of minutes, you can travel in the car in a split second, and it will impact neighboring communities.”

She added that rules need to be changed as far as public participation, which she said may involve a change to state law.

“Right now, my understanding is that only paperwork from the referring municipalities can be considered, and this is ridiculous,” the legislator said. “I am calling for a full review of the rules to maximize community input, and opportunity for neighboring municipalities to have their concerns addressed for the benefit of the planning process.”

Community groups speak out

George Hoffman, president of the Three Village Civic Association, said people made the effort to speak to the commissioners at the meeting only to find that their concerns were disregarded.

“We just couldn’t believe the rules they claimed bound them to discount everything that the public said during the hearing,” Hoffman said.

He added concerns range from the failure to consider the county’s new subwatershed plan; whether the proposed sewage treatment plant would release nitrogen into Stony Brook Harbor; and traffic increases on the Route 25A corridor that both towns share.

Hoffman called it a bad day in Suffolk planning and that concerns from Brookhaven and Head of the Harbor should have been considered.

Judith Ogden, Head of the Harbor trustee and spokesperson for the Saint James-Head of the Harbor Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, said she lives right down the street from the proposed development. Ogden was one of the people who wrote a letter to the town Planning Board stating Head of the Harbor’s concerns about the proposed development, which it feels doesn’t fit Smithtown’s current development plan.

“I’m currently standing in the historic district, Mills Pond Historic District,” she said. “My property is included in part of that and part of the Gyrodyne application, one-third of it, is in the historic district, and it includes putting a hotel and parking lot in the historic district.”

Cindy Smith, of United Communities Against Gyrodyne, said when she was in high school in 1976 she worked on a project asking residents what they wanted to see in their town. She said community members listed more parks and open spaces, more arts and culture that families could participate in. On the top of the list, they wanted residents to be heard by their elected officials.

“Flash forward to today and what happened last week at the Suffolk County Planning Commission, right up front, we were told, your voices would not be heard,” she said.

Herb Mones, head of the Three Village Civic Association land committee, said it felt as if they were told to sit down and shut up, and when a project is so vital such as Gyrodyne, he said he feels all concerns should be considered.

“You would think everyone would want to hear the voices of concern about the specifics as to how it impacts the community — not Suffolk County Planning Commission,” he said.

James Bouklas, president of We Are Smithtown said the various concerns need to be heard by Suffolk planning.

“That means a collaborative process where town officials, residents and civic leaders, environmental groups and others are brought to the table with developers to make sure proposals are vetted through a citizens advisory board — as part of the commission’s process — and that means real public hearings that have real impacts on projects and not kangaroo courts where the fix is in before the hearing even starts,” he said.

Current plan changes

Recently, Gyrodyne’s plans were changed to include the preservation of slightly more than 15 acres to be a separate lot, and a proposed sewage treatment plant to be on a separate lot of more than 7 acres instead of on the open space lot. While a proposed medical building will take up more square feet, and there will be an increase of units for an assisted living building, the revised plan also includes a reduction of rooms in a hotel structure.

Gyrodyne has also eliminated from the plan a proposed 150-seat restaurant, a foot day spa and a 500-seat conference center for the hotel from the plan. Instead, the hotel will include a 133-seat, 4,000-square-foot multipurpose room.

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An aerial view of Smithtown from the Town of Smithtown Draft Comprehensive Plan

While many are pleased that the Town of Smithtown has laid out comprehensive draft plans for each of its hamlets, some residents are concerned with several of the proposals.

“I think we got a lot of areas of town that would make you scratch your head, and say why are there houses next to businesses, next to industry.”

— Mike Cooley

We Are Smithtown, an advocacy group for town residents, hosted an online community forum about the town’s comprehensive plan March 1 to summarize officials’ suggestions and share residents’ concerns, as well as give participants a chance to share their thoughts. Approximately 85 residents took part in the forum.

The plans

In December, the town released its Draft Comprehensive Plan and initiated the State Environmental Quality Review process. Virtual public outreach meetings were held separately for Commack, Hauppauge, Nesconset, Kings Park, St. James and Smithtown proper in January and February. In 2019, the town began the process with public meetings where town officials presented maps and offered interactive sessions. An online questionnaire was also made available at the beginning of the process.

Mike Cooley, vice president of the group, said at the March 1 forum that a lot of what residents see around town is due to piecemeal planning since there hasn’t been a comprehensive plan since 1957. He said in 2015 there was a draft plan but it wasn’t adapted.

“I think that’s why a lot of our downtowns and our main streets look the way they do, and maybe not what you picture as Main Street USA or what you’ve seen in some other places,” Cooley said. “I think we got a lot of areas of town that would make you scratch your head, and say why are there houses next to businesses, next to industry.”

He added that 97% of the town is already developed.

Housing wants

We Are Smithtown vice president Phyllis Hart said while the town talks about people wanting affordable housing, many are asking for single-family homes not apartments. She said in the town’s plan on page 40 it’s stated that 77% respondents to a town survey said they encourage or strongly encourage single-family residential. There were 44% who wanted the town to discourage or strongly discourage duplexes.

“The town is looking to throw up apartments in every vacant piece of land, which will not maintain the residential feel and character of this area,” she said. “The town has not made a clear case of why this is necessary.”

“The town is looking to throw up apartments in every vacant piece of land, which will not maintain the residential feel and character of this area. The town has not made a clear case of why this is necessary.”

— Phyllis Hart

We Are Smithtown has shared concerns about potential multihousing units in Hauppauge and The Preserves in Nesconset where developers broke ground in October. Hart made a case to why single-family homes, that add residential character, keep people in the area. Property values have increased in the town for decades, she said, and buying a home is an investment while homeowners contribute to the tax base. She added that Smithtown’s population has been stable for the last 50 years, and there is no mass exodus as many developers and town officials claim when talking about the importance of affordable apartments.

The group and other residents have been vocal that some of the proposed apartments in the area aren’t affordable.

“We had an influential developer speak with us recently and gave us an eye-popping statement,” Hart said. “With large state and local subsidies, a one-bedroom apartment in this area would be as low as $2,000 a month. As low as $2,000 a month? Affordable for who? Most Apartments in this area are over that.”

She said for most affordable housing is about a house’s price and taxes, and there’s a need for more starter homes, townhouses and condos to enable people to start putting roots down in a community. Hart added developers have said they can’t build affordable apartments without tax breaks, which she said leads to the IDA giving them tax breaks in the millions. She added that the developer gets the tax break, while apartment complex dwellers use town and school district services.

Gyrodyne problems

James Bouklas, We Are Smithtown president, said the forum presenters didn’t have time to go over all the developments, but touched on Gyrodyne in St. James. Groups such as We Are Smithtown and the Three Village Civic Association have protested in the past the proposed plans to the former Flowerfield property which includes subdivision of the 75-acre-property to build a 150-room hotel with a restaurant, two assisted living centers, two medical office parks and a 7-acre sewage treatment plant.

“This is simply too big for St James, and I can’t even imagine something this size and scope that doesn’t transform our community.”

— James Bouklas

“This is simply too big for St James, and I can’t even imagine something this size and scope that doesn’t transform our community,” Bouklas said.

He added a development such as what Gyrodyne has proposed is inconsistent with the town’s draft plan and pointed out page 56 of the plan.

“It discusses that highly traveled corridors are not compatible with commercial development,” Bouklas said. “There’s an  idea that a very high-traffic corridor shouldn’t be promoting commercial development. You know, 25A is one of those high-traffic corridors.”

There are also environmental concerns about the property, he said, as the property was once used to manufacture helicopters. People fear that industrial solvents may be in the ground and other legacy toxins. He said any toxins could destroy nearby Stony Brook Harbor and groups have called for a forensic environmental audit to be done on the property.

“Is there a plume that we don’t know about?” he said. “Are we going to be disturbing it by all this development and are we going to be allowing that into our drinking water? Is this going to be the next Superfund site.”

Judith Ogden, a participant in the meeting and Head of the Harbor trustee, said she is working with the newly formed St. James-Head of the Harbor Neighborhood Preservation Coalition.

She said one of the concerns brought to her attention after sitting in on the town’s virtual public outreach meeting for St. James is that it’s the second most densely hamlet with the least amount of open space.

She agreed that Gyrodyne’s proposed development is not in agreement with the comprehensive plan. Residents are also concerned about talks that Bull Run Farm on Mills Pond Road in St. James may be slated for an assisted living facility, she said.

Ogden added during the hamlet meetings, the town sometimes says what is convenient but not accurate. She gave the example of town officials saying the county would be buying the development rights to BB and GG Farm on Route 25A down the road from Gyrodyne. However, at the time of the meeting the farm owners had not yet agreed to Suffolk County’s offer and the deal did not go through.

As of Feb. 25, a letter was sent to the owners from the Suffolk County executive’s office saying the offer from the county had expired, this after a 60 days extension requested by the owners back in December.

Ogden said many in the coalition are concerned that open spaces are disappearing, and they are asking residents to call and email town Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) and Town Board members and ask for a moratorium on large-scale plans until the comprehensive plan is finalized.

Bouklas said all questions, concerns and suggestions from the meeting are being compiled and will be sent to the town.

For more information about We Are Smithtown, visit www.wearesmithtown.org.

The Town of Smithtown Town Hall. File photo by Phil Corso

Smithtown town officials presented its 2021 tentative budget of $107.6 million to residents last week during a virtual public town hall meeting. A budget vote is scheduled for November.

“2020 has certainly been a whirlwind throwing challenges our way that are expected to continue throughout 2021,” Town Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) said during the meeting. “It has made our jobs as municipal managers much more difficult in both overseeing the operating results for 2020 and projecting the budget for 2021.”

He said that early on in the pandemic, the town “weathered the storm” and created adequate reserves to keep things intact and continued to complete advantageous projects including the Lake Avenue Business District, among others. “The economic benefits of these projects will last long into the future, allowing for generations to come benefit greatly,” he said. 

Wehrheim added that this year the town decreased overtime and decided to cut discretionary spending by 15%. 

“If we should experience this again, we can promise you that town board, myself and our town employees will be ready after all the town endures.”

— Ed Wehrheim

The upcoming budget claims it will maintain municipal services while trimming payroll and increasing property taxes on the typical non-village home less than 1%. 

“In 2020, we looked to reducing expenditures by reinventing our own ways of doing business and created new opportunities to make up for the pandemic-related shortfall,” the supervisor said. “This enabled me to deliver a budget it stays within a mandated allowable New York state tax cap limitation this year of 1.5%, which is becoming increasingly more difficult for municipal managers.”

Some highlights included an overall decrease in salaries accounting for a little over $600,000. 

“Due to the retirement incentive we instituted during the pandemic, we did not utilize any fund balance to balance this budget,” he said. “It is a structurally balanced budget.”

Wehrheim said that overall taxes increased by less than 1% with the exception of residents within the St. James water district who experienced a slightly greater increase due to the water mains along Lake Avenue. The Lake Avenue Project cost $8 million, and includes a dry sewer line that officials home could connect to a sewage treatment plant at the Gyrodyne site near the town’s Brookhaven border. 

The 2021 tentative budget meeting broke down expenses by type. The bulk of expenses at 34% goes towards salaries, 30% to contractual agreements, 29% to employee benefits, 5% to debt service and 2% to equipment. 

It also states the Town’s General fund will see an increase of $22.57 for a home assessed at $5,500 or 3.74%. The same residence will see a reduction in their highway taxes of $4.51 or 3.61% for a net increase of $18.06 per residence valued at $5,500 or 2.48% increase. 

Residents not within village boundaries will see taxes increase by $10.48 for a home assessed at $5,500 or 0.81% higher. Wehrheim said no use of fund balance in any of those funds were used to balance the budget.

After officials broke down the plan, residents voiced their concerns. Members from the civic group We Are Smithtown brought up issues surrounding the Lake Avenue Project, the Master Plan and questions involving the town’s School Age Child Care Program. 

The group criticized that the budget seemed to show the town was profiting off of the program with the tentative budget showing revenue exceeded expenses by $548,264 in 2019. However, it shows that the program is expected to operate at a $226,846 loss this year, and that revenue is expected to exceed costs by $100,000 in 2021. 

James Bouklas, president of the group, argued that the Town of Smithtown brings in $1.413 million in revenue for the program each year, yet the budget shows the program’s cost is $828,000 – a profit of almost $600,000 yearly.

“If you look at the cost, you can see it’s pretty comprehensive,” he said. “This is not its own fund, it’s part of the general fund … In my opinion, it’s pretty comprehensive. There’s not a lot of shared services.” 

He added that the group called for an accounting for every dollar coming into the program. “All profits should be refunded to the families of the program,” Bouklas said. 

Patty Stoddard, a Nesconset resident and board member of the group, said this program is essential to working parents and should be accounted for. 

“This is a program that is a lifeline for working parents often work long hours to be able to afford to live in Smithtown and send their kids to excellence,” she said at the meeting. “This is not the first time we’ve addressed issues with this program. It came to our attention earlier this year that many childcare workers in the towns program were earning less than minimum wage. We pressured the town into doing the right thing and the town agreed to increase wages.”

However, Town Comptroller Donald Musgnug said the budget does not break down the program’s cost provided by other town departments including payroll, insurance, accounting and Parks and Recreation. 

“If you add them to the direct costs, would greatly diminish what you’re perceiving to be, quote, a profit,” he said. “We don’t measure profit and losses within a governmental entity. We’re not viewing it as a business per say. We’re not trying to make money off of that, and the fact of the matter is between 2020, because of the diminished revenues, we’re anticipating a loss of $227,000.”

Despite the problems 2020 caused for everyone locally and across the country, Wehrheim said he hopes the town will never have to witness circumstances like this again. 

“If we should experience this again, we can promise you that town board, myself and our town employees will be ready after all the town endures,” he said.

Rev. Demetrios Calogredes, a Greek Orthodox priest, above, blessed the lot during the ceremony as Supervisor Ed Wehrheim and Vincent Puleo, town clerk, look on. Photo by Julianne Mosher

A new 55-and-older rental apartment project has been in the works in Nesconset, and as of last week, ground has officially been broken with plans full speed ahead.

Town officials joined developers from Hauppauge-based The Northwind Group Oct. 15 to show their support for The Preserve at Smithtown. Alongside the recently cleared lot off of Smithtown Boulevard in Nesconset near Chestnut Street, several members from the We Are Smithtown civic group protested against the development. 

Protesters from the civic group We Are Smithtown, below, included James Bouklas and Phyllis Hart, president and vice president of the civic group. Photo by Julianne Mosher

“We saw data from the town about what people wanted in a master plan,” James Bouklas, president of the group said. “And it isn’t this project. The residents overwhelmingly want less development, not more, lower density, not higher, they want walkable communities and amenities, like a community center.”

“The town is interested in development for the sake of development,” he added. “Their mantra is, build, baby, build.”

The project is planned to cost about $47 million and should be completed within the next two years. But according to Town of Smithtown planning director, Peter Hans, there has been approval for the site since 1988, initially with another developer. That project called for 192 units, and now, under The Northwind Group development, there will be 180 units built on 20 vacant acres.

“It won’t be heavily visible from Smithtown Boulevard,” he said. “A lot of the wood will be preserved.”

And at last Thursday’s groundbreaking, the elected officials all agreed this new development, despite what the naysayers might think, will have a positive impact.

“Everything we’re doing here is to help our economy,” town Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) said at the groundbreaking. “Because of the high taxes, people are leaving. We want to keep our community thriving.”

Vincent Puleo, the town clerk and president of the Nesconset Chamber of Commerce, said residents of the project will bring $11 million in disposable income to the area. “Smithtown Boulevard will become downtown driven,” he said. “The positives outweigh the negatives 100%.”

“Smithtown Boulevard will become downtown driven. The positives outweigh the negatives 100%.”

—Vincent Puleo

Jim Tsunis, managing member of Northwind, said he and his team are looking forward to bringing the project to provide new housing for Smithtown seniors.

“They will move out of their houses, get an apartment here and spend their money downtown,” he said. 

“Turning that property into a senior-living development opens the door for Nesconset, which is a game changer,” town spokesperson Nicole Garguilo said. “Nesconset never had that centralized business district, but now Smithtown Boulevard will have that.”

But the peaceful protesters stood their ground.

“We are not against housing for seniors,” Bouklas said. “We are against density in our already dense neighborhoods, traffic on our congested roads and, most importantly, tax breaks for developers while the rest of us pay full price.”

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A public hearing will be held May 21 to discuss the possibility of apartments in Long Island Innovation Park at Hauppauge. File photo

By Leah Chiappino

A local civic group is protesting a proposal to develop an overlay district that would add apartments to the Long Island Innovation Park at Hauppauge.

Nesconset resident James Bouklas, the president of the civic group We Are Smithtown, is leading the efforts a couple of weeks before a public hearing.

Bouklas said the group started in 2017, as the Nesconset Civic Association, in order to advocate for residents.

“We looked around at what was going on in our hamlet and saw untethered development at all costs,” he said. “We also saw that sidewalks were in disrepair, intersections were treacherous, and people died, and we saw that we had a bunch of new buildings going up, yet there was no restraint. We began to advocate for what we felt was the right path forward for Nesconset.”

He added that as the organization grew, the members started to see that things that were happening in other hamlets affected the entire town as he feels they set precedent the town to support similar developments. The group has led protests against subdividing the Gyrodyne development in St. James, which would make room to build a hotel, medical offices and assisted living homes on the Flowerfield property. They also took a stand against the proposal to build a boutique hotel on the site of the Watermill catering hall in Smithtown. Subsequently, the group changed its name to We are Smithtown in January.

Bouklas said the latest proposal to build apartments in the industrial park is poorly timed with COVID-19.

“Instead of trying to make sure Smithtown families are fed, food banks are in stock, and residents have the resources that they need, the town is spending time trying to figure out how to get developers to profit for building what we think is going to be Co-op City in Smithtown,” he said, referencing the cooperative housing development in the Bronx.

“People moved out from Queens so they can have some space,” he said. “We didn’t sign up for density. If they wanted density, then they would move to Queens.”

Town of Smithtown spokesperson Nicole Garguilo said that the group is putting out “a tremendous amount of bad information.” She confirmed that the project is just a proposal and is not in development.

“This is a public hearing to create an overlay district at the park so the Long Island Innovation Park at Hauppauge can evolve and sustain as the economic engine it has been for the state for the next 20 to 30 years,” she said.

Garguilo said that if the apartments are built, there would likely not be an increase in traffic during peak times as they are seeking to create a “walkable workforce community,” so residents can walk to jobs in the industrial park. She added the town traffic director believes that the weekend may cause an uptick in traffic, as “young professionals may choose to head to the beach, parks or other fun recreational activities.” However, the town believes it would be “primarily unnoticeable,” as weekends are usually quiet in the park.”

Bouklas said that he has doubts that the apartments will be affordable and worries the town will give tax breaks to the developers of the property.

“A lot of people are going to make a lot of money,” he said.

He said he has additional concerns that the development will overwhelm the school system, the police department and the fire department. Garguilo said apartments would not be targeted to families with school-aged children, but rather millennials looking to start their careers. The town hopes that this would attract high-tech businesses such as Google, Apple and Facebook, companies college graduates are looking for jobs at.

“[Young people] want to enjoy the start of their careers, put together savings for a future home in the town where they were raised,” she said. “In addition to affordable living — that’s not their parents’ basement apartment — they want to find the perfect career.”

The proposal came from a 2019 report conducted by James Lima Planning + Development strategists to grow the industrial park.

According to the report, the park already accounts for 8.2 percent of Long Island’s gross domestic product and houses more than 55,000 employees of 1,350 companies. Currently, it generates $65 million in property taxes.

The report suggested that “a residential component within the peripheral areas of the park would not only provide potential housing for Hauppauge’s workforce but would enable the park to retain vitality and dynamism that could go beyond business hours and into the weekends.” It listed Motor Parkway and the sections of Old Willets Path that lies between Engineer road and Motor Parkway.

A public hearing will be held via Zoom May 21 at 2 p.m. Visit www.smithtownny.gov for more information.