It's the Pits

Quietly, with little public notice, the Town of Oyster Bay is working to pass a zoning ordinance that could allow development of an environmentally sensitive property, threatening drinking water and destroying precious open space.

The town has been trying to sell the parcel, the 65-acre sandpits in Plainview, to Holiday Management, a Westbury developer. Holiday didn't return Long Island Voice phone calls, but documents submitted to the town outline the company's plan to pave over 56 of the acres with 72 condominiums, 138 single-family homes and 160 "waterfront villas."

Last spring, Holiday drew criticism when company officials proposed creating a two-tier lake for those waterfront villas by lining the pits with vinyl, which would prevent rain from filtering through the soil and recharging the sole-source aquifer that runs beneath the property. John Turner of the New York State Water Resource Commission says his agency has warned Oyster Bay leaders that the development could add pollution to Long Island's water and cut into already dwindling water supplies. "Not only does this project have water-quality concerns, but there are also water-quantity concerns," Turner says. "It's clear we're over-pumping the system."

Turner's agency persuaded the town to set aside nine of the property's 35 wooded acres but made little other progress. Now the Town Board is preparing to vote Dec. 14 on a zoning ordinance that would allow Holiday to finally move forward with its plans for the "Hamlet on Olde Oyster Bay," waterfront villas and all.

The proposed zoning change would create a special Planned Use Development District, a fancy way of saying developers will be able to put up denser subdivisions than normally permitted. In Suffolk County, the arrangement allowed Pine Barrens activists to preserve thousands of acres in exchange for accepting dense development at the edge of the forest. But in Oyster Bay, the arrangement translates into enhanced profits for developers, who are able to cram more housing into smaller areas. In addition to plowing under Plainview, the special district could be used to allow construction on the 81-acre Underhill property, one of the last pristine tracts in Oyster Bay—and another Holiday project atop a sole-source aquifer.

Bonnie Eisler, one of two Democrats recently elected to the formerly all-Republican board, says she was surprised by the move, since she and Anthony Macagnone were promised by town officials they'd be able to vote on the Plainview proposal after they're inaugurated in January. By then, it now appears, the sale will be in the books.

What's not clear to Turner, Eisler and community activists is whether Holiday still intends to seal off the sandpits to create an artificial lake. Voice calls to the town planning department were referred to the public information office, which ignored requests for comment. Eisler says she suspects that the only way to get waterfront lots is to seal the pits. "If they don't line the pits, the water will continue to be absorbed into the ground," she says. "Hopefully, this is important for the people, because it is our source of drinking water."

Selling the Plainview sandpits is equally important to town officials, who hope to add $16 million to public coffers from the transaction. That's $8 million less than Town Supervisor John Venditto projected for the sale—a shortfall that recently forced the town to issue bonds to close the gap. Eisler says taxpayers will end up spending $800,000 annually for 20 years to cover the new debt.

"They're letting the developers call the shots, and we're all going to pay," Eisler says. "We're paying now with the bond, and we'll pay in the future with our drinking water."

 
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