A victory for Heartland
ISLIP TOWN—Last Wednesday, the Suffolk County Planning Commission unanimously voted to recommend that the Islip Town Board grant a longstanding zoning change application for the Heartland Town Square Project. The controversial proposal – located at the site of the former Pilgrim State Hospital – would change the zoning from residential to a newly established Planned State Redevelopment District.
The massive $4 billion plan – submitted by Developer Jerry Wolkoff – seeks to transform Brentwood’s former Pilgrim State Hospital into approximately 9,000-plus apartments, 1 million square feet of retail space, and 3 million square feet of offices, amounting to the construction of 15.5 million square feet of development over the next three decades. It would foster millions of square feet of living, work and retail space to the area.
Commissioners submitted several conditions in its recommendation, including that the petitioner shall certify that all contractors and subcontractors used to build retail and industrial buildings will participate in apprenticeship programs. They also encouraged the town to monitor traffic at 50 percent occupancy of the first phase of development and later on at incremental stages as well. In addition, they submitted that the Suffolk County Water Authority should monitor any changes in the groundwater table while closely monitoring irrigation.
Supplemental comments added to the recommendation include that the Town of Islip consider reserving land for a new school in the Brentwood school district – in the wake of district officials complaining about overcrowding and insufficient land space for district building – and that appropriate parties better gauge and monitor wastewater flow.
Planning Commission Chair Jennifer Casey said after the meeting that she felt the meeting was a successful one.
“I think we had a very productive meeting and the commission worked together very well,” said Casey. “Different questions popped up [during the process] and we reached out to the staff and Town of Islip to make a more informed decision…I think it was a very fair process and that we worked together very well.
“Our job is to make projects better and look at a more regional view rather than just one town’s view,” added Casey. “We represent all citizens of Suffolk County and need to make sure the project works for everyone.”
Casey noted that the board members expressed a range of concerns – with her concern being traffic and railroad accessibility. Others included water usage, sewage, school district funding, and building height. Despite such concerns, she said that the board ultimately felt it would be best to recommend a project with productive suggestions rather than simply vote no.
“We’d rather [offer ways] to make a project better than reject it,” said Casey. “It could have still gone back to the town if we voted no, and we’d rather send the project back with conditions and comments to help them and guide them.
“This is a very important project for Suffolk County,” added Casey. “It has the potential to bring more residents and construction…It’s an economic home run for the county if it works the way it’s supposed to.”
Back in August, the Islip Town Planning Board already recommended a portion of the project (133 acres) to be approved and considered several phases at a time. This would allow the town to oversee the project’s impact on infrastructure and traffic before deciding upon future phases.
Over the years, the proposed project has weathered criticism from residents, elected officials, and community leaders over concerns ranging from increased traffic issues in an already congested space, a flooding of new students to the already overpopulated Brentwood School District, and an unwanted shift away from Eastern Long Island’s suburban character.
“I know Wolkoff very well, and I know that he is a strong supporter of Brentwood,” said Central Islip/Brentwood Community activist Nelsena Day. “But the project is too large, especially for the school district – which seems to be the biggest problem. Where are we going to put all these children?”
Day suggested that the developer should establish internship programs for young people and utilize local workers for the construction – which Wolkoff has not elected to do, to the disapproval of local union members.
“These people are going to need the opportunity,” said Day. “This is an important way to keep young people on Long Island, help fill apartments, and even help some of the businesses remain around.”
MaryAnn Johnston, president of the Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Association – which has partnerships in Islip Town – expressed concerns related to the project and questioned the integrity of the Suffolk Planning Commission.
“It’s transparently clear that [the board members] are serving their own interests – along with the developers, builders and business people – and not that of the public,” said Johnston, who was one of the eight public speakers at the meeting, which lasted five and a half hours.
Johnston stated that all New York taxpayers would have to pay for the required widening of the Sagtikos Parkway, and noted that 3.25 millions of gallons of water would be utilized in an aquifer located in “a special groundwater protection zone which the planning commission did absolutely nothing to protect.”
“Our county executive permitted them to use Bergen Point, and there are no certainties that it can handle such excess capacities,” added Johnston.
Ultimately, Johnston reiterated that the fate of the project – which dates back more than 13 years – lies in the hands of the five-member Islip Town Board.
“Now, is the Islip Town Board going to do the right thing, or do what’s best for their constituents?” asked Johnston. “The citizens of Islip can decide at the next election whether people can keep their seats.”
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