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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Rethinking Old Decisions

In February 1932, petitions were circulated to begin the process of incorporating the Wheatley Villa neighborhood and a few other North Westbury properties lying between Jericho Turnpike and the Northern State Parkway. This was kept on the lowdown, but word got out with the petition drive only two signatures short of the required number, and residents living south of the parkway and north of the railroad sprung into action. They wanted village services and didn’t want to lose the excellent Wheatley Villa tax base. Within a couple of days, this Middle Westbury group printed and circulated their own petitions calling for a village between Jericho Turnpike and the railroad tracks, filing the petitions at the Town Clerk’s office before the North Westbury group knew what was happening. Meanwhile, the people living south of the railroad tracks were ready to organize opposition to any village that left them out. The one thing that all three groups agreed on was that the neighborhood on the other side of the cemetery, described in a contemporary newspaper article as “a large section populated by Americans of foreign birth,” should not be in the village.

The Village of Westbury was cobbled together and approved in a referendum at the end of March 1932, 200 votes to 24. In the end, the cemetery was in, but the New Cassel section of Westbury was out. To this day, the residents of the village decide most community issues and set policy right in their own neighborhood, and those on the other side of Brush Hollow Road must go to strangers in Manhasset (or hire someone to go there for them) to ask if they can install an awning.

224 people decided it should be this way, in a time when only Dick Tracy conceived of television.

At that time, many neighborhoods raced to incorporate as a village before the tax crises caused by dozens of these secessions from town, school and highway tax rolls precipitated a ban or limitation on new municipalities. Such a limitation was passed in the form of the 1936 Nassau County Charter, which effectively gutted the power of new villages to govern many of their important affairs. The most notorious crisis culprits were the estate villages, founded by as few as 10 property owners who sometimes deeded small plots of land to servants in order to meet minimum population requirements. The estates are long gone, filled in with houses, condominiums and schools, but the ability of Nassau County residents to plan and initiate positive change in the 21st century remains hamstrung by a status quo that no longer has a rationale.

There were a lot of hard feelings over who got in and who got left out. Residents in the newer neighborhoods of Massapequa created the Village of Massapequa Park over the strenuous objections of homeowners in older neighborhoods like Hollywood Gardens and Wurtenberg, who were blocked from joining in 1931. A few months later, the strongest opponents of the proposed Village of Roslyn were in the newer, less fancy neighborhoods of Roslyn Heights. There isn’t room in this newspaper to describe how many residents of West Hempstead, Locust Valley, Laurel Hollow, Baldwin, Roosevelt, Oceanside, Woodmere and other communities were thwarted in efforts to create or join villages. Sometimes villagers didn’t want to pay for amenities in other neighborhoods, and sometimes they didn’t want other neighborhoods, period. Very quickly, village power structures consolidated and newcomers looked like a threat.

In the summer of 1936, 51 percent of Carle Place residents signed petitions asking for annexation to the Village of Westbury, so that they could enjoy the public improvements and protections that “rural” (town) government generally did not provide at that time. They’re still waiting for an answer.

What might be done about our multi-layered local governments is not just about potential fiscal savings. In some cases, cost reductions from consolidation or dissolution would be small or only temporary. It’s primarily about how well we provide needed services and make logical, sane decisions. The reasons things ended up looking this way are mostly forgotten. The need to rethink and change the way ahead has never been greater.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net