You didn’t think that the Five Towns would remain the same size forever, did you? Sooner or later something had to give, and that is precisely what is happening with the development of the Woodmere Golf Course, which was sold to Efrem Gerszberg and his partner, Robert Weiss three years ago.
Hundreds of families want to establish their homes in the Five Towns and surrounding areas. Perhaps it is the great schools and yeshivas, the convenient shopping, or the upscale lifestyle. Whatever their reasons, it is also understood that a plan of this magnitude will inevitably have its critics and even opposition.
For New Jersey residents Gerszberg and Weiss, developing communities like this is not something new. They are both seasoned real estate professionals who understand the sensitivities of a community like ours.
In light of the conflict over the former Woodmere Club property, 5TJT sat down with Gerszberg and Robert Weiss to talk about their vision for Willow View Estates.
LARRY GORDON: Why are you agreeing to an interview now?
EFREM GERSZBERG: Over the past three years, we have been working toward obtaining our approvals. As frum Jews, albeit from New Jersey, we know a lot of people in the Five Towns. It has been amazing to hear all of the false rumors and misinformation that has been spread by some of the public and even certain local politicians. The time has come for us to set the record straight and allow citizens of the Five Towns to make their own informed decisions regarding the Woodmere project.
LG: Can you tell us what your current plan is for the club and where you are in the process?
ROBERT WEISS: The current zoning for our property (which sits in Woodmere, Woodsburgh, and Lawrence) allows for 284 homes; 237 of the homes will be on 6,000-sq.-ft. lots, and 47 are on 1-acre lots. All of the homes in Woodsburgh and Lawrence are on one-acre lots. We are currently about a year into our technical review by the Nassau County Planning Board called SEQRA. We completed a 1,000-page report under SEQRA and we expect the SEQRA process to be completed this year.
LG: We hear so much negative information about the project’s traffic issues, environmental issues, and housing prices. How confident are you that your plan meets the legal requirements to be approved?
RW: We completed a comprehensive study with the largest and most prominent engineering firm in Long Island. It is clear from the 1,000-page report that we meet every legal requirement for the approval of this project.
LG: So, you are confident that the project will be approved?
EG: Eventually, yes. We have seen the villages and the Town of Hempstead take so many illegal actions over the past three years. We have had to sue Woodsburgh and Hempstead already. Unfortunately, we are realistic that the municipalities will continue their illegal behavior and we will be forced to obtain our approvals in state and federal court.
LG: What happens if you are denied by the villages or town and you are successful in court?
EG: Typically, what happens is that federal judges order the approval to counteract politically motivated local votes, even though our project is legally permitted. In addition, the villages and town could be responsible for millions in damages as well as spending almost a million dollars of taxpayer money for their own legal fees.
LG: So the project is approved by a judge, not the villages or town?
RW: Exactly. The judge will order the local planning board to approve the application.
LG: You mention you sued Woodsburgh and Hempstead. Why, and what happened?
RW: We have sued both for an illegal moratorium. We won both lawsuits. Of course, Hempstead postured that they will appeal but they didn’t, and the time has lapsed for them to do so. Moreover, we recently filed a lawsuit against Woodsburgh for passing their illegal Vision Plan. We also will be filing a major lawsuit in federal court in the coming days against Woodsburgh for targeted harassment and applying the law differently against us versus other citizens.
LG: What is the Woodsburgh Vision Plan?
EG: Woodsburgh has been pretending to create a master plan for the village. What in essence they are trying to do is retrospectively create a vision that will marry what is already built and limit any development at the Woodmere Club. The plan indicates that the vision for the village is predominately residential, an apartment building on the corner of Meadow and Broadway, cluster development on the Woodmere Club, and, of course, open space on a significant portion of the Woodmere Club.
LG: What is the cluster development the Village of Woodsburgh is referencing?
EG: Because they can’t legally just tell us that 10 acres of our property must remain open space (it is illegal to simply zone our property to open space), they are suggesting that we move our houses that sit near existing Woodsburgh houses and move them to the Lawrence area of the property. This will give us more houses in the Lawrence area on smaller lots and less homes by their residents in Woodsburgh.
LG: Sounds good for Woodsburgh and bad for Lawrence.
RW: You said it, not me. Although I agree: Lawrence has the most to lose and the least to gain.
LG: What is wrong with their plan?
EG: Well, for starters, this is a plan that should have been adopted in 1920 before the village was 99% developed. It is a clear attempt to spot zone (an illegal action targeting one land owner, as opposed to a plan for the entire town). I mean, is it a coincidence that they think there should be an apartment building on the corner of Meadow and Broadway when, surprise — there happens to be an apartment building there now? It is the first step in the village’s attempt to target the rezoning of our club.
LG: Can we go back and discuss the park district? What happened to that?
RW: It is illegal to simply take our property and create a park. The county has told us they cannot afford to maintain the property, let alone purchase it. The Town of Hempstead said the same thing. The Town of Hempstead put forth a poorly informed questionnaire to try to show the residents that the property will not remain open space. They knew that there was no appetite for a special tax on residents to make it a park and they understood the town could not simply take our property.
LG: If the Town of Hempstead knew the park district would fail, why did they put forth the questionnaire?
RW: The Five Towns Civic Association unrealistically thought that there was this groundswell of support for taxing residents to make our property a park. They promised all of their members that there would be nothing built on the site so they had to fight for zero. The town was simply trying to prove to the association that there was not the groundswell of support for a special tax they thought existed.
LG: So the park concept wasn’t real?
RW: Actually, funny you should mention that. The Town of Hempstead claimed they did a park zone report but we legally requested the report and it seems there is nothing to produce. I guess the park concept wasn’t real as they knew that a majority of those living within a half-mile of the club wouldn’t pay $4,000 of extra taxes annually for the next 20–30 years.
LG: If there is no park district, then what is going to happen to the property?
EG: Lawrence, Hempstead, and Woodsburgh recently signed an Inter-Municipality Agreement (IMA).
LG: What is an IMA?
EG: It is an agreement to work together to create a new zone called the Conservation Area Zone-Woodmere Club that will rezone the property and allow for less density.
LG: What are the next steps after the IMA is signed?
EG: The three governments will work together to create a new zone. The problem is that they are indicating they will allow for some residential houses and then take large parts of our property for open space. This is illegal. They can’t just try to make our property a park and then simply take it from us by not allowing any development or homes because the Five Town Civic Association and the politicians failed to make it a park. We have heard that Hempstead is trying to convince the other villages to make half our property a public nine-hole golf course.
LG: Who will run the golf course?
RW: Not us. A nine-hole golf course will lose money and cannot be run profitably. We will definitely not run it, and the government can’t force us to run a public course. The county has also said they won’t run it, so I guess it will be Hempstead and the villages.
LG: Why would they want to run a money-losing golf course? And wouldn’t this compete with the club in Lawrence?
EG: We have no clue why anybody would want to run a nine-hole golf course. They don’t work financially. I am not sure why local taxpayers would want to subsidize a golf course for people all over Long Island.
LG: Why would the neighbors of the club want the general public using this nine-hole golf course? It will not be a private club, allowing anyone to play on any given day.
RW: We cannot figure out why Lawrence would want a competitor to their club. The Lawrence club already loses money and a “no membership” public alternative to play golf locally will only further hurt them financially.
LG: If the three governments want to take part of the club for open space or a nine-hole golf course, can they legally do that?
RW: No. First, it is illegal to spot zone just to create a new zone for one property. Second, even if the new zone was upheld, the area that they zoned as open space, the nine-hole golf course, or the areas where we could not build must be purchased from us at fair market value.
LG: What happens if they rezone the property and make it a nine-hole golf course?
EG: It’s actually an interesting question. We would have two choices. We could either sue for the zone to be deemed illegal and we get our 284 homes, or build the single-family part and sue for damages for the lost homes. There is not one real lawyer who would say that a town can take 50 acres from a private citizen to make a nine-hole golf course and not have to payfor the land they are taking.
LG: What would the damages be and who pays?
EG: The damages would be the homes that we could have built less the homes permitted in the new zone. For example, if they zoned us down from 284 homes to 84, we could sue for the lost value of 200 lots that we could have sold. It is possible that Woodsburgh, Lawrence, and Hemp-stead could each be forced to pay tens of millions of dollars in damages for the property that they illegally take. This is not unprecedented. This has happened in other townships in the past, and once a federal judge has ordered payment of those lost lots due to actions of your representatives, there is no renegotiation or coming back to us to say, “OK, build the 284 homes.” By that time we will already have a court order requiring the town and villages to pay tens of millions of dollars, which will likely affect you in the form of a large tax assessment.
RW: Just to put the damages in perspective, a one-acre home next to the golf course sold for $2 million and was knocked down to build a new house. How much is a 6,000-square-foot lot or 1-acre lot worth in the Five Towns? How much is a waterfront lot worth? The politicians are playing with fire and are risking a huge tax assessment on all residents of Lawrence, Woodsburgh, and Hempstead.
LG: I can’t imagine what you are saying is accurate. How can their lawyers allow them to be so exposed?
EG: The town attorneys are 0 for 2 already and they haven’t performed one legal action as of yet. For instance, the IMA was signed by Councilmen Bruce Blakeman and Anthony D’Es-posito. That is illegal. It should have been signed by Supervisor Laura Gillen. We haven’t sued yet on the IMA, but if they can’t get the right signatory on a document, it appears that they are getting poor legal advice. Have any of the governments received a legal opinion, where the law firm is on the hook, that this zoning is legal? I can assure you no.
RW: I just want to add. Let’s look at it like this. If you owned two lots next to each other in Woodmere, can the government say they want take one of your lots for open space? Of course not. It is zoned for residential housing and they can’t simply take your prop-erty.
LG: One of the things that we have heard rumors about is an alternative to the 284 homes. Is this true?
RW: Well, yes and no.
EG: This past summer, we were asked by Supervisor Gillen’s office to try to come up with an alternative to save the town millions in legal fees. We came up with an alternative solution and presented it not only to her chief of staff but also to the Five Towns Civic Association. After the meeting, the Supervisor’s office thought it was great, and until two weeks ago we had not heard from the Five Towns Civic Association.
LG: What happened to the proposal?
RW: We invited the mayors and trustees from Woodsburgh and Lawrence to show them our alternative at a meeting on December 11, 2019. We also invited Mr. Blakeman, Mr. D’Es-posito, and Supervisor-elect Clavin. None of them showed up.
LG: Why wouldn’t they attend?
RW: We cannot answer that. There seems to be an entirely different agenda. For instance, the zoning was changed at the North Lawrence train station to allow for the construction of workforce housing with no regard to traffic or environmental impact. We had heard rumors that this was to benefit young families in the area but, in actuality, it is for low-income housing. This project, which was approved overnight without any traffic or environmental impact studies, would add over 1,000 new housing units and at least 1,000 cars right near Central Avenue. Someone should really read that zoning. It is quite shocking.
EG: What is equally shocking is that the Five Towns Civic Association was not out fighting this zoning change tooth and nail, similarly to the way they continue to fight the Wood-mere Club development which is as-of-right zoning. The Lawrence train station zone was changed to allow four times as many housing units as our property zoning currently allows. Nobody came out to fight against that zone change, including the Civic Association.
LG: Will you share with us the alternative plan you had suggested?
EG: We have received literally hundreds of calls to be put on a waiting list for our lots. Since about 18 months ago, we have received about 50 calls asking us to consider building an age-restricted luxury condominium project. This would allow the residents of the Five Towns to downsize, spend more time in Florida and Israel, and still maintain a luxury Five Towns residence. Also, there are many parents who would like to move near their children who already live in the Five Towns.
RW: Based on this request, we came up with a project that has only 65 one-acre single-family homes, 12 acres of open space, and a 55-and-older community.
LG: What would the age-restricted portion consist of?
RW: Well, the Regency has 144 units on about three acres. We would have 220 units on over 10 acres, so it would be a fairly low density project of four-story buildings. We would have concierge services along with a shul, beis midrash, multiple pools (one for separate swimming and one for mixed), tennis courts, as well other amenities.
LG: Where would each component be located?
EG: Basically, we put the condo buildings along Broadway, put an extensive public exercise and walking trail, and put additional buffers between the existing homes and our project. Additionally, we are leaving 12 acres of open space.
LG: What would happen to the clubhouse?
RW: We would consider making it into a shul, JCC, library, or other community amenity. We have received many requests for a use that would benefit the community and we will look into all possibilities.
LG: The Five Towns is lacking a local catering venue. Have you thought about turning the clubhouse into a catering hall?
RW: We have received about ten calls from rabbis and businessmen asking us to create a catering facility at the club. It was not in our plans, but if the politicians work with us, we would consider it. If we are forced to fight for our 284-home project, we will not make any compromises after we win approvals.
LG: It sounds like you are willing to compromise.
EG: We are willing to be reasonable and consider all alternatives if there is a dialogue. However, the time to discuss alternatives and compromises is now. If there are no conversations, we will simply move forward on our 284-home project.
RW: We went in front of the Village of Lawrence mayor and trustees at last month’s board meeting to inform them of our plan. We went uninvited but were surprised at the reception. Mayor Edelman heard our plan and liked the concept. We are hoping to be able to meet with Lawrence to keep the dialogue open.
LG: What about Woodsburgh and Hempstead?
EG: Mayor Israel and Councilman Blakeman have informed us they will not meet with us. We believed that based on Councilman Blakeman’s quotes about trying to reduce the density that he would look favorably on our project. One of the reasons we designed this plan was that it reduces the amount of people living at our project by over 50%. It reduces the school buses by over 80%. It provides 12 acres of open space. It hits every one of Councilman Blakeman’s talking points.
LG: Where does the Five Towns Civic Association stand?
RW: We had no idea until two weeks ago, but, to be frank, they aren’t really the Five Towns Civic Association; they are the 1,000-Foot Civic Association. It is clear that they are only thinking about themselves and they mostly consist of people who live within 1,000 feet of the club. When we invited them to join our meeting with Supervisor Gillen’s chief of staff to present our alternative, we were shocked that they wanted us to remove the walking paths and exercise equipment from the 12 acres of open space and let it remain overgrown and natural. They were more concerned about their views than public amenities.
LG: Has the Five Towns Civic Association given you their opinion on the alternative?
RW: Yes, they wrote us an email informing us they are against it.
EG: This is very interesting. They finally admit that there will be residential homes on the project.
First, I think their marketing is amazing with the “6th Town” line but in reality, the Five Towns has almost 7,000 residential units. We are 284. Moreover, are they really suggesting that a project like the Regency and 65 single-family homes each on their own 1-acre lot is a 6th town? Is the Regency (which is on Central Avenue, no less) half a town?I truly think they are being extremely disingenuous. They state we are “reshuffling the deck.” Let me step back and explain the benefits of a 55-and-older project. The project is going to be 220 units. That is about 370 residents. Usually, in an affluent area such as the Five Towns, more than 50% of the 55 and older residents will spend part of the year out of state, usually the entire winter. This means that the project has very few people during the winter months when kids are in school and school buses are on the road. More importantly, each 55-and-older unit averages less than two people per residential unit. This compares to an average of three or four kids in a single-family house, which is a difference of almost 1,000 people. Age-restricted condos generate no school kids and no school buses but yet pay full property taxes. Finally, most of the residents will stagger their driving to avoid peak hours. There will be a shul inside the building so there is no reason for the residents to leave in the early morning. Finally, statistics show that the car ownership for 55-and-older communities is an average of a little more than one car per unit versus a single-family home which has more cars and drivers.
RW: How can the Civic Association say they are concerned about schools, buses, and traffic and then reject this idea? How can they not want to meet us to further this discussion? (We received an email from Rena Safra informing us they will not meet with us.) How can the Civic Association say they want open space when we offered 12 acres for free and they rejected it? The association admits that they will need to pay for any open space that they try to get without our cooperation. If we’re being honest, they don’t care about the community at large, only themselves.
LG: What do you foresee as the next steps?
RW: You mean if the politicians refuse to consider our alternative plan?
EG: Well, Councilman Blakeman put forth a rezone two years ago to allow about 105 homes on our property. We informed him of our displeasure, as did the Five Towns Civic Association. Councilmen Blakeman and D’Esposito tabled the new zone. The zoning hasn’t been heard about since but we can’t imagine they will rezone the property for fewer homes than was recommended by the town’s consultant, Cameron Engineering. Cameron Engineering produced a lengthy report, at a cost of $112,000 to the town, confirming that the property should be rezoned to half-acre lots. It will be hard for them to now disregard their own report and the town’s expense and make it different zoning.
LG: So basically, it is going to be either 284 single-family homes or about 100 single-family homes.
EG: That is probably the case. It is a big gamble by Mayors Edelman and Israel and Councilman Blakeman. They will spend over $2 million in legal fees across probably three to five lawsuits, and if their attorneys were honest, they would tell them they are more likely to lose than win. We have won every lawsuit we filed on this project.
LG: You guys seem pretty litigious.
RW: We will fight against any illegal actions that are taken by the local governments. Every action that is taken is procedurally and substantively flawed and illegal. We have no choice but to protect our investment. This is not the Wild West. Everyone, including the politicians, has to follow the law.
LG: Is the club, still open?
EG: Yes, we are keeping the clubhouse open, as well as the tennis courts. We have closed the golf course temporarily because we have been getting harassed by Lawrence. We received four violations for mowing the lawn at certain hours of the day, even though this has been going on for 100 years. The Lawrence Country Club is guilty of these violations as well, but of course being the village’s golf course, they did not get fined. We will continue to host bar mitzvahs, aufrufs, sheva berachot, and any event. We also will be offering new gym and tennis memberships.
LG: There has been a knock on you guys that you are outsiders; what do you say to that?
EG: I understand the sentiment here, but we have donated to local organizations, given our club for free to different charities, and, most important, we finished the eruv linking Lawrence to Woodsburgh. This hadn’t been done in 35 years. Even in thinking about an alternative, we thought we could solve a huge need in the Five Towns by developing a high-end age-restricted project. This certainly wasn’t for our financial benefit. We absolutely prefer 284 homes to our alternative project.
LG: What happened with the eruv?
RW: The previous owners of the Woodmere Club wouldn’t allow the eruv on the golf course property and therefore people have been walking and carrying along Railroad Ave/Keane Lane without an eruv for decades. We understood that Woodsburgh would not cooperate in making an eruv so we worked with the Eruv Committee and allowed the eruv to be installed in a number of locations on our club property in order to include a number of streets. Unfortunately, Woodsburgh, in a letter to the Nassau County Planning Board, used the fact that there is now an eruv on our property against us, which may force us to remove the eruv. It is ironic that Woodsburgh, which made it difficult to put the eruv up in the first place, is now stating that the eruv is essential and trying to use the eruv as an impediment to our project.
LG: Where can residents learn more about what is going on?
EG: We have recently created a website, woodmereclubnews.com. We will only put accurate information on this website.
LG: I am sure people will be interested in the age-restricted component. Can they put their name on a list for a unit?
RW: Yes, we have a VIP list sign-up for those interested in purchasing a condo. We also have a separate list for those that would be interested in purchasing a lot or a single-family home. Both VIP sign-ups will be available on our website.