By Uri Kaufman
It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while a community is asked to make a decision that will affect the quality of life for generations to come. Our community will face just such a decision this Tuesday, on September 15. Because on that day we will hold Village elections that will decide the future of the Lawrence Village sewage plant site.
If you don’t already know, the plant was closed down a few years ago – our sewage is now pumped to a larger and more modern County facility – leaving us with a valuable four-acre site on the corner of Rock Hall Road and 878. It would not be an exaggeration to say that how we develop the site will impact life in the Five Towns for decades to come.
But more on that later. First, allow me to take you on a stroll down memory lane to an almost identical issue the Lawrence Public School Board faced in 2008.
Back then the School Board, where I then served as a Trustee, closed the Number One School, leaving us with a three-acre site to sell. The three acres were located on Central Avenue, next to the Peninsula Library. Put another way, the site was just a hundred yards from Rockaway Turnpike, the busiest intersection in the Village. As everyone knows, Central Avenue has just two lanes with a yellow line down the middle.
We on the School Board wanted to sell the site to a group of luxury condo developers. The Village was in bad need of high-end condos for people that wanted to downsize. And the School District was in even greater need of the $32 million we were offered for the land.
There was a vocal group that cast the sale in the same apocalyptic terms one often hears in the debate over climate change. No, they didn’t accuse us of melting any icebergs. But they insisted that the 144-unit development would be an “end of the world” event, choking the neighborhood in traffic, noise, drunk workers playing loud music, garbage, etc. Finally, they resorted to the NIMBY battle cry: the condos would change the “character” of the Village.
Well, the sale went through. You know the site today as The Regency. And in the ten years since the first condo units sold, none of the dark prophecies have come to pass. I have literally never heard a single complaint about the complex. Never once have I seen traffic snarled in front of The Regency. Cars occasionally get backed up on Rockaway Turnpike. But that’s because the County – without consulting with the Village—changed the traffic light at the intersection of Central Avenue, adding a left turning signal that slows everyone down. It has nothing to do with The Regency. The lack of traffic really shouldn’t surprise anyone; seniors don’t do carpool, don’t need school buses and tend to drive an awful lot less than the rest of us. And that’s when they aren’t in Florida.
The only feedback I’ve ever heard is what an amenity The Regency has become for the community. I’ve even had people thank me for saving them from having to move to Florida, or for helping create a place for their parents to live nearby. Never mind that it put $32 million into public coffers, and thus allowed us to give tax relief and still make a Kiddush Hashem by transforming the School District.
I left the School Board years ago and got elected as a Village Trustee in Lawrence. It is in that capacity that I now argue for the Village to repeat the success of The Regency, and sell the four-acre sewage plant site for luxury condo development. If you haven’t noticed any change in the “character” of the Village caused by The Regency, then you’re even less likely to see one this time. The sewage plant development would be smaller than The Regency—only 120 units, instead of 144 units—would be spread out on four acres instead of three, and is located on 878 which is a six-lane highway. You would be hard pressed to find a better use for the site, or a better location. And the sale is likely to put over $20 million in the Village’s bank account.
What could we do with over $20 million? I would start by building a multi-sports complex in the Country Club. $20 million would pay for an indoor swimming pool open all year round, an indoor playground for children in winter, basketball gyms, a weight room and more. $20 million will also allow us to buy one of the beach clubs in Atlantic Beach for Village residents. All of these amenities would be offered with membership in the Country Club.
A sports facility open all year round is the one thing the Village has always needed. Our Yeshivas don’t have enough gyms for our children. The Public School gyms are all booked solid. Children and young adults that want to play ball cannot do so for lack of facilities. As for swimming, some people have private pools in the summer months. Very few have pools for use all year round. To teach my kids to swim, I had to drive over half an hour each way to the JCC in Oceanside. I would have far preferred joining a country club in my own backyard.
Like most clubs, the Lawrence Country Club is currently losing money. This is no one’s fault; there is declining interest in golf across the country. A consultant hired by the Village concluded that the only way to make the Lawrence Country Club profitable again is to build the sort of multi-sports complex that will attract young people. This is the only way to pay for it. I have been a real estate developer for almost thirty years. I will make sure it gets built and gets built right.
A different faction on the Village Board wants to sell the sewage plant site for the building of just eight houses. Given the high infrastructure costs (installing roads, sidewalks, street lights, electricity, water & sewer lines, etc.) eight lots might bring in $2-$3 million. That’s a nice chunk of change. But it’s not nearly enough to build anything significant. It would be a shame if we lost this once-in-a-history opportunity.
I would have preferred to decide the fate of the sewage plant in a referendum. Unfortunately, the Village attorney has instructed us that New York State law prohibits us from holding one (I know, I know, it’s nuts, but that’s the law; don’t blame me, I’m just the messenger). Unfortunately, the election on Tuesday will have to serve as the referendum. If I am lucky enough to be re-elected, the sale of the sewage plant will go through and the sports complex will be built. If I lose, a once in a history opportunity will be lost.
The first thing they tell you when get elected to public office is that you are a fiduciary. Of course, in the end we as citizens are all fiduciaries. It is our job to do what will benefit the most people over time. The School Board did that in 2008. If you re-elect me on Tuesday, I hope to do that again in the Village. Please come down to the polls on Tuesday and vote. Future residents will be glad you did.