The fate of a key source of drinking water on Long Island now rests in the hands of a profit-driven developer, a few Brooklyn judges and the budget-bungling Republican machine of Nassau County.
Since 1972, the Tilles Investment Company has sought approval from the Town of Oyster Bay to build hundreds of luxury homes on 81 pristine acres in Jericho. Known as the Underhill property, the old farm sits just off the Jericho Turnpike and smack over the Magothy aquifer— a natural resource so important to life on LI that it’s part of only two Nassau locations designated by the state as a special groundwater protection area.
The Underhill property is also one of the last large tracts of undeveloped land in Nassau, earning it a place on the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s list of open spaces that should be preserved. Underhill sits between a 25-acre park that Tilles donated to Oyster Bay and a 19-acre tract whose owners have pledged to protect it if Underhill goes unbuilt. Taken together, the three parcels would provide an unbroken stretch of 125 acres of fields, woods and wetlands.
Not surprisingly, Tilles has faced opposition to its plans almost since the day company founder Gilbert Tilles filed his first zoning application with the Town Board more than two decades ago. Environmentalists and concerned neighbors have taken the matter to court, where the proposal to develop Underhill has languished for 15 years— long enough for an entire generation of kids to grow up with no right to play in the hay fields or clamber over the split-rail fences.
On Sept. 7, lawyers for Tilles argued in state appellate court in Brooklyn that a January ruling requiring a new environmental assessment should be thrown out. A decision on their appeal is expected by mid-October.
Though legal relief has stalled the development, the best way to save Underhill would be for the state, county and town to join financial forces, buy the property and set it aside forever. If the judges block the new homes, the land may be available for as little as $15 million. If they let the project go forward, Underhill’s value will surge exponentially. Both Woodbury-based Tilles and Holiday Management of Westbury— which holds a contract with Tilles to purchase the land and build homes there— have said they’d consider selling the acreage to conservation groups, but not for much less than it’s worth.
At a projected cost of $40 million— some say $60 million— the rolling meadows, kettle ponds and wooded vistas may be forever out of the public’s reach. Instead of grassy fields and oak trees protecting the water you drink and bathe in, homes with sewage systems and pesticide-soaked lawns may soon cover the ground.
“You’re going to have to say, can we raise $60 million? For 80 acres of land?” explains Erik Kulleseid of the Manhattan-based Trust for Public Land, which is trying to arrange a deal to preserve Underhill. “That would be a hard sale.”
What Happened to the Money?
Environmentalists who’ve been lobbying for a government purchase of Underhill say bigwigs in Albany are willing to pony up several million dollars— including cash from the 1996 Clean Water/Clean Bond— if the county and town will chip in.
In theory, that partnership should be possible.
Nassau County has some $10 million earmarked for the purchase of open space, and County Executive Tom Gulotta has long paid lip service to the cause of preserving Underhill. But Gulotta and his GOP compadres have run the county’s finances deeper underground than the aquifer they say they want to protect, leaving them in no position to shell out millions for a few dozen acres of undeveloped land.
Republican-controlled Oyster Bay, for its part, is one of the richest municipalities on the Island. But far from being willing to help pay for Underhill, Oyster Bay officials are trying to sell off the open space the town already owns in an attempt to plug a three-year deficit that some say approaches $36 million.
Oyster Bay pols may end up plugging more than their deficit. In recent months they’ve been negotiating the sale of 65 acres in Plainview to Holiday Management, the same firm under contract with Tilles for the Underhill property. Holiday is willing to pay $24 million for the privilege of turning the Plainview sandpits— which were dug for a never-used landfill— into the Colony on Olde Oyster Bay, a 538-house subdivision. One idea the company has tossed around is to line the sandpits to stop them from draining and create a freshwater lake for residents to enjoy.
But while the new occupants would jog around the artificial pond, the rest of Long Island would start going dry. The town’s Plainview acres are a natural recharge area for groundwater, and if rain can’t filter in then no tap water flows out.
Lee Koppleman, executive director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board, blasts the Plainview proposal as a quick fix for an ailing town budget.
“It’s another one of these one-shot deals,” Koppleman says. “It’s not only bad budgetary policy, it’s bad for the environment.”
Koppleman also criticizes Tilles’ plan to develop Underhill. Koppleman argues that Oyster Bay should do more to shelter its groundwater, rather than chasing after potential property taxes. He compares the situation in Oyster Bay to one in the Town of North Hempstead, where officials agreed in 1993 to a Planning Board recommendation to prohibit dense housing in the state-designated groundwater protection area of the Whitney Estate. “The Oyster Bay [groundwater protection area] is the only one that we’ve had virtually no cooperation on from the town,” he says.
Nor has Koppleman played on the same team with at least one of his own fellow board members— Roger Tilles, now head of the Tilles Investment Company. Appointed to the Planning Board by the county last year, Tilles said he hasn’t voted on policies concerning his Underhill property, though he has taken part in discussions of it. “If there’s no money to buy it, nobody has ever said that they should appropriate it or stop it from being developed or whatever,” Tilles says.
Fight The Power
For the activists who are trying to block destruction of open space in Oyster Bay, the presence of a developer like Tilles on the Long Island Regional Planning Board is just one more example of the kinds of tight political connections that have made their fight so difficult.
Bonnie Eisler, who lives in Woodbury, says anxious neighbors have struggled to get information about the town budget and proposals for paving Plainview. Eisler says she watches powerful GOP lawyers lobby the Town Board for developers and get the full attention of officials. After years of feeling small as an ant when she rises to speak, Eisler decided the only way to make a difference in Oyster Bay was to snatch some power for the people. She’s thrown her hat into the November race for Town Board, running on the Democratic and Working Families party lines.
“We only get really one chance at the environment,” Eisler says. “Until we bust Tammany Hall in Oyster Bay, things aren’t going to change.”
As important as the Underhill and Plainview acres are, they pale in comparison to the August land grab at the State College at Old Westbury, where some 200 forested acres are now in developers’ sights. Those woods also sit on top of the same aquifer as the Underhill and Plainview tracts— and they were placed in jeopardy courtesy of legislation sponsored by State Sen. Carl Marcellino, a Syosset Republican, and Assemblyman Tom DiNapoli, a Great Neck Democrat who’s also the new Nassau County Democratic boss.
Tilles points out that Marcellino and DiNapoli lead environmental committees in Albany but are leading a charge for development here on the Island. He questions why politicians have been willing to pave over vast parcels in groundwater protection areas but are digging their heels in when it comes to his 81 acres. “This is not an environmental issue,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense to try to preserve a small piece at the same time as you’re throwing away large ones.”
Others wonder why Tilles doesn’t see that the Underhill property is still beautiful, especially compared with the Plainview sandpits. Its aesthetic value makes it an environmental flashpoint no matter who wants to develop it.
Nassau is so bereft of unbuilt acres that it renders parkways as green areas on planning maps and includes lawns and golf courses in surveys of open space. Now that so little open land is left, every square inch of it becomes more valuable.
Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, can rattle off a list of programs for buying open space in Suffolk County. Thanks to the combined efforts of state and local government, some 53,000 acres of the Pine Barrens are now set aside forever. Plans are under way to add yet more land.
Amper says that without cooperation from state and county government, Oyster Bay will never be able to afford to protect its unbuilt property— even if town officials decided to stop trying to sell it. As time ticks by, the value of the parcels balloons, making preservation more difficult by the minute. “It’s the last open space to recharge the aquifer,” he says, “and the developers and their friends have put a big bull’s-eye on it.”