By Michele Justic
The Five Towns community is seeing red over green space. News last year that Woodmere Golf Club had sold its property to Weiss Properties and 2020 Acquisitions sent the community scrambling for ways to maintain the serene quality of the land.
Town of Hempstead passed a moratorium and renewed it several times to prevent building until the intricate issues of land borders and zoning could be worked out. The board called on Cameron Engineering to survey the situation and determine the best course of action for development of approximately half of the 100-acre land.
The 5 Towns Civic Association was formed, with lawyer Mario Joseph at its head. The group educated the community about the ecological, financial, and quality-of-life ramifications of allowing 200 houses built on land home to native species of flora and fauna. The rallying cry to not create a sixth town mobilized the community to contact elected officials for answers.
When an agenda item to maintain the residential zoning designation of the golf course area was discovered on an agenda for a May 8 Town of Hempstead Board meeting, outrage and misunderstanding went viral. At an information meeting at the Lawrence Woodmere Academy, officials explained to the full house of over 400 people that because the survey results were not available in time for residents to review, the vote was rescheduled. Councilman Anthony D’Esposito received a round of applause when he asserted the town would not vote on the issue at the Zoning Board meeting the following day. The vote has been rescheduled for June 19.
Yet, as the full details of the Cameron report were revealed, the cheers turned to jeers. Councilman Bruce Blakeman insisted he asked the engineers to “be aggressive” in their formulations. But the idea of 20,000 to 40,000-square-foot homes where geese and migratory birds now live came as a shock.
The full study reveals mandatory use of water-absorbing pavement and use of landscape-conservation barriers, among the compromises. Many in the crowd insisted they want a park district instead. The distinction between park district versus regional park was emphasized in that a regional park would be too costly and bring in added traffic.
Later on Facebook, former Town of Hempstead supervisor Anthony J. Santino posted, “The proposed development of the Woodmere Club is a dagger pointed at the heart of the #FiveTowns. It should be Dead on Arrival as far as I’m concerned. The Town of Hempstead should create a park district that will preserve the quality of life for present and future generations of Five Towns neighbors, families & children.”
In a press release the following day, the town reported, “During public comment, the current property owner of one of the impacted golf courses, the Woodmere Club, Efrem Gerszberg, announced that he would be filing a lawsuit against Hempstead Town in response to the continuation of the moratorium and the zoning proposal that was presented to the community at a meeting on May 7.”
It continued: “Proving the concern of the Councilmembers and residents to be true, Mr. Gerszberg stated his belief that they would be able to build in excess of 350 homes under current zoning. The proposed zoning change would only allow for the construction of 77 homes in the unincorporated portion of the property. He said he did not plan to wait until the zoning passed before he files suit with the Town of Hempstead on this issue.” Gerszberg has filed that suit claiming the town is violating his “constitutional property rights.”
On Facebook, Mario Joseph, 5TCA president, commented, “We are here to demand answers to difficult questions. Our elected officials are elected to answer them. We have a hugely diverse and successful group of constituents in the Five Towns. To keep them excluded from this process until the 12th hour was outrageous. It stands to reason that the developer wouldn’t be happy that our community has a final opportunity to mobilize and participate in solutions. It also stands to reason that our elected officials should be thrilled that our community prevented them from upzoning to ½-acre lots and still getting sued.”
Several letters to the editor were submitted to the Five Towns Jewish Times on the subject as well. One compared the situation to West Broadway, making the popular claim, “Our roadways are already taxed beyond capacity.” Another presents the counterclaim, “Pretty much all renters would gladly welcome any increase in the supply of single-family homes in FR/5T.”
Mayor Lee Israel of Woodsburgh told the 5TJT, “Our current zoning in the areas concerning the potential Woodmere Club development are one- and two-acre minimum parcels. This zoning has been in effect for well over a decade and the board has no intention of modification. It is our responsibility to maintain the integrity and charm of our village as elected representatives of our residents.
“Just as a point of information, over half of the entire club acreage falls within Woodsburgh and Lawrence, both of which contain the above zoning regulations. The Village of Woodsburgh has been, for some time now, performing its own independent studies and evaluation with its legal counsel and planning consultants on a regular basis. Any request for subdivision or development will be strictly reviewed from all aspects to determine the long-term impact on Woodsburgh and the surrounding area. As stated, the Village Board remains vigilant and will continue to pursue what is determined to be in the best interests of the community.”
“I am against the whole project and it would be a disaster for the whole village,” Mayor Alex Edelman of Lawrence told 5TJT. He agreed with the common assessment of the problems of traffic, drainage, emergency routes, etc. Practically speaking, he stated that his village is zoned for one-acre homes and they have no intention of reducing that. He asserted there probably would be some homes but hopefully also something along the lines of a small golf course or a recreation center.
“I’ve been here 49 years. Traffic in the last 10 years quadrupled. Let them go develop someplace else.” Edelman said. “We should worry about people, not lawsuits.”
Cedarhurst Mayor Ben Weinstock explained the intricacies of the situation to the 5TJT for “Keeping the Woods in Woodmere” (May 4, 2017), and now provided the following update, “Our Village Board has not received any application from the developer and we have not had any discussions with the developer.”
Councilman Bruce Blakeman had the most to say on the subject both at the Woodmere Academy meeting and to the 5TJT. He has dedicated countless hours to provide the best options to the community. He insisted the people do not understand the process. “The property was zoned for 80 years as 60-by-100 lots …. When we found out the Woodmere Club was sold, we realized we had to take a look at the zoning. We didn’t feel the community could absorb the number of houses 60-by-100 zoning allows. On the town side alone, that’s 244 houses. So at that point we made a decision to investigate whether it makes sense to rezone. We hired engineers. We agree 244 houses would be a detriment to the community. The choice we were left with is to prepare a report and determine how much housing we could allow and still have a court uphold our decision.
“Some in the community said ‘don’t give anything.’ Our legal counselors said we would lose and he would get his 244 houses. We created a mixture of half-acre and one-acre zones which would yield a maximum of 77 houses on the town side.”
On a personal note, he said, “It’s difficult for me to hear people think our motives are not to protect the community when we’re going above and beyond to protect the community.” While he admitted, “our communication could have been better about the process,” he asserts that people did come before the town board to talk. Within five days of receiving the report, the town rented a space so a meeting could be held at night, when fewer people would miss work. The town also created postcards to inform people and had breakout sessions to discuss the issues with professionals.
“That doesn’t mean we approved 77 houses. That doesn’t mean he gets a permit for 77 houses.” Standing by his decision, he concluded, “We reduced the density and believe it would withstand judicial scrutiny. Otherwise they get everything.”
Elaborating on the park idea, Blakeman explains, “The community could create a special park district and those that fall within the district can design it any way they want. Everyone would be assessed for that park.” He warns of the traffic and potential crime parks can bring but is willing to do what the community wants within the bounds of the law.
Indeed, the law is quite complex, and even when passed at the local level, it involves subdivision approval from New York State and possible federal restrictions.
“Because an application has not yet been submitted, we do not yet know if it will impact any state laws or regulations,” said New York State Senator Todd Kaminsky. “Rest assured that my office will monitor this vigilantly, and act swiftly, if the development’s scale or scope runs afoul of state code.”
One thing is certain: the development plan is not a hole-in-one. Stay tuned to 5TJT and 5TJT.com for more developments.