The battle over Jericho's Underhill property, an issue that has been raging on for over ten years, is a step closer to being resolved. Governor George Pataki announced an agreement late last week to preserve the property - a step that will protect one of the last undeveloped tracts in Nassau County.
Under the agreement, New York State, Nassau County and the Town of Oyster Bay will acquire 50 acres of environmentally-sensitive land in a state-designated Special Groundwater Protection Area above the county's sole source aquifer.
"This landmark agreement will help preserve some of the most precious open spaces in Nassau County, ensuring that this valuable resource will be protected for the benefit of future generations," said Pataki. "By working together with local community leaders, concerned citizens and environmental groups we've reached a consensus that will protect these beautiful green spaces for the enjoyment of thousands of Long Island families. Since 1995, we've preserved nearly 400,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land throughout New York State, and the preservation of the Underhill Property will build on that tremendous record of success."
According to the proposal, 50 acres of the Underhill Property will be purchased from landowner Roger Tilles using preservation funds from the town, county and state. The state will use $7.5 million from the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) to acquire 25 acres of the site. Nassau County will acquire 16.67 acres for $5 million and the Town of Oyster Bay will purchase 8.33 acres for $2.5 million with another $5 million earmarked to settle lawsuits.
In addition, the development rights of an additional 20 acres would be contributed by Bill and Ellen Doremus who own the property adjacent to Underhill. Added to the existing 25-acre Oyster Bay Town Preserve, a 95-acre Underhill Preserve would be established.
According to the proposal, the Holiday Organization, a development company, will build 102 single-family homes on the remaining 31 acres. Under the proposal, the developer agreed to sell 40 percent of the homes to people 55 and older to lessen the impact on the Jericho School District.
According to Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto, the next few steps in the process should take between six and twelve months. They include all involved parties signing an agreement, certain parties producing the money to purchase the property, the developer must undergo the sub-division process with Nassau County, the town and Roger Tilles need to explain the terms of the settlement to the court, the court must approve it and the Town of Oyster Bay Board must vote on the settlement.
"I am delighted that under the leadership of Governor Pataki, we were able to bring together all of the many different constituencies to make this happen," said Venditto. "With permission to finally build on the land almost certain, the agreement, which leading environmental groups agree offers the best protection of the land is a realistic plan that will preserve the environmental integrity of the parcel while allowing suitable development."
Environmental and civic groups applauded the recent proposal to save the Underhill Property. Joseph Lorintz, past president and founder of the Society to Preserve Underhill and executive director of the Long Island Drinking Water Coalition said he was thrilled. "Governor Pataki went overboard to preserve Underhill and make the Venditto plan possible. This is a remarkable example of leadership at every level of government," he said. "Long Island is the clear beneficiary."
Town of Oyster Bay Councilwoman Bonnie Eisler, who had been negotiating with landowner Roger Tilles and developer Gerald Monter, announced a possible deal last month that would pay Tilles about $15 million to preserve approximately 46 acres. Environmental and civic leaders rejected her proposal and started a campaign to get Governor Pataki and the state involved in the process.
"This plan is very close to what I had originally proposed," said Eisler. "I originally said there was not going to be any more land available at the appraised price of $300,000 and that is true. It is more costly for those five extra acres," said Eisler. "At the end of the day, I am glad all of the parties came on board and we have preservation."
Venditto explained that, from an environmental standpoint, this proposal will benefit all of the Town of Oyster Bay, not just nearby residents, "I think it would be appropriate if a plaque were put on the property, not naming any names, but saying that this is what can happen when residents and their government come together and do the right thing by the community," said Venditto.
Although the proposal was verbalized by all interested parties, the next step is to put the details in writing. Venditto estimates that all involved parties will officially sign a written agreement within the next week.