A state appeals court recently upheld a State Supreme Court ruling that the Town of Oyster Bay violated state environmental law when it gave Nassau County developer Roger Tilles a zone change that would have allowed construction of a 240-unit housing project on 81 environmentally-sensitive acres known collectively as the Underhill Property This area is located at the northwest corner of Jericho Turnpike and Route 107 in Jericho.
The unanimous decision by the Appellate Division said that the town board has failed to consider the environmental implications of high density residential development in a state-designated special groundwater protections area - the source of aquifer recharge in north central Nassau. In a separate memorandum, one of the judges wrote regarding the Town of Oyster Bay: "... I believe recognition and disapproval of some of the less than good faith stances taken by the town during the course of this litigation should be noted so as to discourage their repetition." The Court went on to say, "... one might reasonably query whether the town officials were really ever concerned about the environmental effects of the proposed development. Nevertheless, despite the town's apparent environmental disingenuousness, legitimate environmental concerns do exist, and must be addressed."
Councilwoman Bonnie Eisler is calling on fellow town board members to take immediate actions to preserve land in the town's special groundwater protection area. "I am appalled and outraged by the Town's actions in settling this case," Eisler said. "I think it shameful that the Town could utterly fail to meet its obligation to take a hard look at the adverse environmental impacts of this project, as the court said it had done. The board abdicated its responsibilities by not even considering the changes which had occurred in the more than ten years since the Final Environmental Impact Statement had been prepared in connection with Tilles' 1985 rezoning application, which was denied."
Many civic organizations have been battling to preserve the Underhill property for some time now and this court ruling was a major victory for them. "The court agrees that the Town cannot give developer friends the right to build atop our purest drinking water supplies," said Joseph Lorintz, president of the Society to Preserve Underhill. He called for the immediate purchase of the land by state, county and town officials.
Writing to Governor George Pataki, State Senator Carl Marcellino, State Assemblyman David Sidikman, Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta and Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto, Lorintz said, "The Court has spoken, the high density zoning has been rejected and the acquisition is affordable. The time has come to make good on the years of promises to preserve Underhill. Government must act now."
Venditto offered his support for preserving the Underhill Property in the wake of the successful lawsuit against proposed development on the site. "This could be the defining moment," he said. "The court has spoken, and its decision presents a golden opportunity to the Town, for the first time, to examine other options that may be available to help insure the preservation of this ecologically sensitive land for the enjoyment of present and future generations. I have directed the town attorney to expeditiously review the court decision and vigorously investigate all options that are available to the Town. Those options include, but are not limited to, an environmental bond issue, municipal acquisition, and the creation of an Aquifer Protection Overlay (APO) District in the Town."
Venditto indicated that attempts to develop the Underhill property date back to the mid 1970's through the mid 1980's when the developer, Tilles Investment Company, brought several applications before the Town Board to rezone the property for residential development. After the last application was denied in 1986, the developer took the Town to court. Nearly 10 years of legal action ensued before the Town and Tilles finally worked out an agreement that would allow Tilles to construct 270 homes on the property. A lawsuit challenging the settlement resulted in the court annulling the agreement and ordering the developer to prepare a new environmental impact study. The Town and Tilles, in turn, filed an appeal of the judgment. The Town eventually withdrew from that appeal.
"We are going to do everything that we can to pursue acquisition of the property for permanent preservation," said Lorintz. "That includes reaching out to all levels of government and enlisting their promises and deeds to accomplish the goal of preserving the property. Someone in government has to take the lead and there needs to be political leadership. Someone has to say not only do I say that I am in favor of preservation, but this is how I am going to approach it. The time has come when promises and lip service are not going to do it and actual leadership from someone has to be taken. "