In response to objections and questions raised at a special meeting last Thursday, Oct. 22, the North hempstead Town Board postponed its decision of whether or not to sell 9.2 acres (which has subsequently been changed to 6.8 acres) of former Morewood property, next to the new Harbor Links Golf Course. The prospective buyer would construct a 2-rink public ice skating complex that would provide ice and instruction for both hockey and figure skating, catering primarily to family and school needs. The Town Board appeared to be in favor of the sale, except for Republican Councilman James O'Connor, who raised many negative questions about 2.4 acres (which are no longer part of the sale) that would not necessarily be developed by the purchaser. Although several hockey and figure skating enthusiasts in the audience supported the sale, several people, representing civic associations and/or themselves, accused the Town of trying to surreptitiously rush the sale. They therefore asked for a decision delay until more information could be gathered.
The prospective buyer is Family Ice Enterprises, LLC, which would collaborate with Mentmore Real Estate Holding Corporation, to build an NHL Skate facility, endorsed by the National Hockey League (NHL). Family Ice License Enterprises has an exclusive license to use the NHL name for its centers.
The 79,000-square-foot NHL Skate Center would be built on 6.8 acres of former Morewood property, adjacent and north of the Harbor Links Golf course on Shore Road. It would feature two NHL-regulation-size ice rinks that would be used by the community and schools for youth and adult hockey, figure skating, recreational skating and instructional programs. The facility would have a 500-seat and a 200-seat heated viewing area; both would be raised above the rinks and separated from the rinks by thermal glass walls. The design thus eliminates two problems found at many skating facilities - freezing viewers and blocked views. The center would have locker rooms, rooms for meetings and birthday parties, offices for skating instructors, and a souvenir shop. The facility would also have an NHL Skate Center of Excellence, an educational center that would have a video and research library for coaches, players, parents and fans.
The project would be compliant with all the zoning requirements and standards adopted for the Harbor Links Planned Unit Development District.
Although the skating center would be open year-round, Supervisor May Newburger said that it was particularly appealing because it would provide community recreation during the winter months when the adjoining golf course would not be used. For this reason, it could keep some otherwise-seasonal concessioners in business year-round.
Richard Hoffman of NHL Skate was the first to speak in favor of the project. He was followed by Robert Crawford, vice president of NHL Skate, who said the skating complex would satisfy a need for ice that forces parents to drive their children to outmoded, far-away rinks at 4 a.m. in the morning. He also said the rink would create 75 jobs for local residents, including local figure skating pros.
The question asked most persistently by Town Councilman James O'Connor was: What does the developer plan to do with the extra 2.4 acres not needed for the skating facility. O'Connor said permitted uses include retail shops less than 7,500 square feet, professional offices, and a sports rehabilitation center. The first reply was that the prospective buyer has no plans to use the extra 2.4 acres but nevertheless wants to control the adjacent property. Later in the hearing Supervisor Newburger challenged O'Connor to reveal why he's so concerned about the 2.4 acres; she asked what nefarious plot he hoped to unveil and - because the Board of Zoning Appeals would have to review any nonconformng uses - asked which permitted uses he objected to. O'Connor replied that the need for a hockey facility shoudn't outweigh the town's need to adequately inform the public of how the extra land would be used. After bickering with Newburger and being prodded by her, O'Connor finally announced that he was in favor of selling the 6.8 acres for NHL Skate but that he was opposed to selling the additional 2.4 acres.
Mr. Greenstein was the first to comment against the proposal and the first to ask the most persistently asked question from the audience: Why was the Town Board so anxious to hold this hearing and sell this property so quickly? Greenstein said he received a notice of the meeting only 48 hours beforehand and suspected that most residents weren't aware of the meeting at all. He said, "You (supervisor, town board) may be doing everything right, but because you didn't give adequate public notice, you give the appearance of hiding something."
Supervisor May Newburger replied that the board could have signed the purchasing contract without holding any hearing. She also said the agreed-upon price is 40 percent above market value. The Executive Assistant to the Supervisor, Ellen Markowski, explained to this newspaper before the meeting that it had been called hastily for two reasons. First, negotiations between the town and developer took a long time, and they had finally reached an agreement. Second, the developer said he had to get started immediately so that certain construction work could be completed before winter sets in.
Scott Winter, president of the Beacon Hill Residents Association, spoke the most against a "rushed " vote. He referred to it as "stealth in the middle of the night." Later he asked what the next best bids were. Newburger replied that "It may be inappropriate to reveal such information at a public meeting and that she'd have to consult with Town Attorney Howard Miller before answering.
Neither the General Council of Homeowners Associations, nor Residents for a More Beautiful Port Washington, made official statements at the hearing. They did issue a joint letter, however, which states that they are "unable to take a position at this time on the merits of this proposal but urge that no action be taken until the public is adequately informed about what the proposal entails and given ample and timely opportunity to provide input." They said they wanted to make sure that appropriate procedures regarding notice and transfer of public property are being followed.
Dr. Gary Wadler, Port resident and chairman of the Nassau County Sports Commission, spoke in favor of the proposed use of the land. He said the physical activities that would be provided by the facility would benefit the entire community - especially the youth and the elderly. He cited a New York Times quote from him, stating that physical activity helped the elderly stave off mortality. He said that he'd like to see the extra 2.4 acres used for a sports medicine clinic and that the proposed skating facility "should be considered a shining light, second to none."
Vincent Capasso, who coaches many hockey teams as part of his teaching job and also as volunteer, said the skating facility would be "long overdue on Long Island."
Robert Thornton, an ice rink builder from Oyster Bay, on the other hand, complained about the nonexistent public notice of the special meeting. He said he would like to have had the opportunity to bid on the project.
Gail Berman of Great Neck, who attended the hearing with her teenage daughter, identified herself as a skating mom and then announced that she would love to have a new rink in the area.
Port Washington Water Commissioner Betty Forquer spoke on behalf of herself and asked if the board had considered using the extra 2.4 acres for a small shopping area. Newburger replied that the developers of the senior housing facilities waived their right to purchase the property and that no other potential bidders had come forward.
Richard Hoffman, speaking again for Family Ice Enterprises, said his organization might be willing to accept a right of first refusal as a compromise solution that could alleviate the present public concern about future use of the 2.4 acres. He said he thought a revised agreement could probably be worked out as early as the following Monday, and it was. The Town is now negotiating a purchase price in excess of $2 million for 6.8 acres.
At the special meeting the Town Board voted to table its resolution to sell the property, until after the town and developer have had an opportunity to research, analyze and discuss some of the concerns expressed at the hearing. That meeting was adjourned almost two hours later, at 7:50 p.m. The Town hopes to vote no later than early November. If the sale is approved, the NHL Skate Center will be subject to a site plan review early next year. According to a Town press release, the new facility could be fully operational by the fall of 1999.