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Last Licks On Land Sale Vote

Opponents trade barbs as

referendum draws near

In the final days of the hotly contested skirmish over 54 acres of land that the Town of Oyster Bay wants to sell, harsh accusations are flying thick and fast-- some with more merit than others.

Last Tuesday, the town board approved payment of $600,000 in legal fees to Sinnerich, Kosakoff & Messina, LLP for negotiating the sale of town land to a trio of developers and fending off legal challenges.

The next day, Long Island Jobs Now, an entity backed by rival developer Taubman Centers, put out a statement calling the sum “suspiciously large” and complained that the move “raises serious questions about whether the Town is illegally funneling taxpayer money into a slush fund to pay for its campaign to sneak this bad deal past the taxpayers.” A spokesman called on the town to “open its books and detail how each dollar of this account is spent.”

Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto was ready to fire back with those details--and accusations of his own. “On Tuesday, the Town of Oyster Bay set aside $600,000 for legal fees--$407,000 of which has already been incurred,” he said. A third of the total, or $200,000, was set aside to cover future legal costs. Of the portion already spent, he explained, $137,000 went to surveyors, engineers and other ancillary technical consultants, and $59,000 covered the sale negotiations. Nearly half--$195,000--was directly related to fighting legal challenges.

“The lion’s share was spent on litigation from when Taubman sued us,” Venditto said. “The monies they’re criticizing that are being spent for legal fees, are the very monies they’ve forced us to spend.” He dismissed the accusations by Long Island Jobs Now as “really despicable and reprehensible.” The town board wants to sell the property to bolster its balance sheet, and chose the trio, which includes two local developers in partnership with Indianapolis-based Simon, because they have indicated they will build a facility that combines ground-level retail shops with housing on upper floors.

Michigan-based Taubman has been haggling with the town for years to acquire the special permit it needs to build a mall on the neighboring site. The developer had initially proposed 1 million square feet, but has since downsized its plans twice--first to 860,000 square feet and then to the current 750,000 square feet--in an attempt to assuage local concerns. Acquiring the town property could allow it to expand its plans again. Taubman took the town to court to force the Aug. 20 referendum on the sale.

LI Jobs Now, Taubman’s proxy, has accused the town of making a back-room deal without a public bidding process, against the best interests of its taxpayers: “Town officials may have cost Oyster Bay millions of dollars in additional revenue that could have helped to keep taxes low and finance vital government functions.” Town officials have responded that there is no legal requirement to pursue an open bidding process on all properties.  

The pro-mall group issued a statement that “Approving deal expenses after the fact is proof positive that the Town’s goal was to rush this deal through without anyone noticing and underscores why residents must vote “no” on August 20.”

“It’s outrageous that the Town has already wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to sneak its non-competitive deal past the public,” the statement continued. “If the Town had engaged in a proper bidding process from the outset, it could have reaped millions of dollars more for the land while avoiding these legal fees that directly reduce any profit it claims to be making from this land sale.”

Venditto’s not the only one pointing accusatory fingers at Taubman. The Cerro Wire Coalition, a civic group born of grassroots organization which is being financially supported by rival developer Simon Property Group, says Taubman is out in the streets telling outright lies to fool residents into a vote they may not intend. The group has sworn affidavits from three residents who say they were approached either at their doors or on their home phones by advocates who told them to vote “no” to block the mall.

April Neuendorf of Woodbury testifies that she got a call from a woman who declined to give her name or her organization’s name, but said that voting ‘yes’ would be giving Taubman more land on which to build. In fact, voting ‘yes’ will seal the sale to the other buyers.

“They are now telling bold-faced lies in a desperate attempt to fool the voters of Oyster Bay,” said Todd Fabrikant, chairman of the coalition, decrying “sly and devious tactics.” “Fortunately, the people of Oyster Bay know better. They know that voting ‘yes’ means Taubman’s mall is blocked from moving forward.”  

For the Michigan developer, which has spent more than $122 million on the stymied project so far, money seems to be no object. For local officials and residents, however, more than money is at stake.

“If it was just a matter of getting the best price, then whoever wants to bid on it will tell us what they’ll pay, and we’ll give it to the highest bidder,” Venditto said. “In this case, we’re not looking for the best price, we’re looking for the best deal for the Town of Oyster Bay and its residents.”