On Feb. 5, a deal to preserve 50 acres on Jericho's Underhill Property was completed with the town, state and county all coming through with the funds they promised. The agreement, which has been a conceptual understanding since October 2002, finally came to fruition.
Joe Lorintz, executive director and founder of the Society to Preserve Underhill, holds the deed for the parcel now owned by the Town of Oyster Bay.
This deal ends decades of battling between local residents, environmental groups and land-owner Roger Tilles, owner of the Tilles Investment Company. Tilles has tried to develop the Underhill Property since 1972, according to Louis Soloway, partner in the Real Estate Practice Group at Certilman Balin, which represented the Tilles Investments Company. "This deal is a wonderful example of state and local government working in unison with business to satisfy commercial development, as well as the wishes of the environmentalists," he said.
The Underhill Property, which sits atop the first federally designated sole aquifer and is one of two state-designated groundwater protection areas in Nassau County, will be subdivided with New York State purchasing 25.12 acres, Nassau County purchasing 16.67 acres and the Town of Oyster Bay purchasing 8.33 acres, all which will be preserved as park area. The developer, The Holiday Organization, led by Gerald Monter, will build 102 single-family units to be known as the Hamlet Estates at Jericho on the remaining 31-acres and agreed to sell 40 percent of the homes to people 55 and older to lessen the initial impact on the Jericho School District.
Joe Lorintz, executive director and founder of the Society to Preserve Underhill, a coalition of more than 50 environmental and community groups, first got involved with Underhill in 1996, when the plans called for a 270 unit housing project to be built on the 81 acres. Prior to that, development plans included 400 units on the land.
After a great deal of effort, largely led by Lorintz and the Society to Preserve Underhill, over 61 percent of the land will now be preserved. "Three decades of community striving have resulted in the protection of a great natural treasure," said Lorintz. "An important piece of Long Island's history has been preserved along with an important drinking water well for our children and grandchildren."
In addition to the preservation of 50 acres, Bill and Ellen Doremus who own the property adjacent to Underhill, will donate the development rights of an additional 19 acres. Adding that to the existing 25-acre Oyster Bay Town Preserve, an almost 95-acre Underhill Preserve will be established.
The Town of Oyster Bay will be responsible for the maintenance of their parcel as well as the land purchased by the county and state, a stipulation all parties agreed on. The town has 12 months to develop, and produce in writing a management plan, which will result in a master plan for the management and use of the 50 acres. Input from local residents is strongly encouraged and will be considered when deciding what to do with the land.
"We all agree that we didn't preserve all of this land to make a park," said Lorintz. "We preserved it because it is a valuable piece of open space and it is a critical recharge area for our drinking water."
Lorintz explained that the main goal is to have the land remain in its natural state, but also allow the public to enjoy it. "I would also like to see an environmental program initiated to keep up the educational resources," he said. "Seeing even a portion of this land developed leaves me with mixed feelings, but from a realistic point of view, this is certainly a great accomplishment."
Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto said that all levels of government should learn from this bipartisan effort. "This is a good time to point out all that has happened in the last few years with respect to the Underhill property and is a great example of the good things that can happen, in this case for our environment and future, when concerned residents work together with a responsive government," said Venditto. "Seeing this dream become a reality is overwhelming."
Venditto praised all parties involved in making this deal a reality, from the Governor to the Doremus family, singling out Joe Lorintz. "Joe and I put politics aside and worked hard together to make Underhill happen," Venditto said. "Joe Lorintz was an essential component and a key player in making this all come about. Joe deserves a tremendous amount of credit and so do many other people. Recognizing this, I have turned to Joe to oversee the management plan and act as a special council or special advisor to the town board, to help us get through this next phase."
Nassau County Presiding Officer Judy Jacobs has worked with community residents and environmentalists to get this deal done. "The Underhill property is a vast piece of pristine land. It is one of the last remaining jewels of open space in Nassau," said Jacobs. "I have been committed to ensuring that this land not be lost to development. It is vitally important that future economic development must be handled in a way that maintains the suburban character of our communities... This is an investment for the future of all Nassau County residents."
Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi is pleased that the Northeast corner of Nassau County will finally be protected. "This beautiful and valuable environmental asset can be officially preserved as open space, protecting the property itself as well as the nearby Sole Source Aquifer, the most environmentally sensitive area of Nassau County," said Suozzi. "This is a win-win situation for all involved."