Heartland versus Suffolk County
SUFFOLK COUNTY—Developer Jerry Wolkoff filed a $15 million lawsuit earlier this month against Suffolk County in the hopes that they will connect his Heartland Town Square megaproject in Brentwood to the Southwest Sewer District.
The lawsuit comes after the county Legislature’s Public Works Committee decided in September, through a 4-3 vote, that the 9,000-unit development wouldn’t be connected to sewers.
Wolkoff reportedly stated, shortly after the vote, that both the decision and his having to go before the committee came as a surprise. The developer also gave his opinion that a sewer hookup is his right. After a phone interview earlier this week, Wolkoff maintains the same stance, adding, “Everyone else is getting a [sewer] hookup. What not me?”
The developer was likely referring to the recent sewer expansion in Suffolk County, used with New York State grant funding. He also, according to recent reports, called the decision “illegal” and outside the committee’s authority and jurisdiction.
Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) said he hasn’t reviewed the lawsuit yet. “[Wolkoff] feels the process was unfair, but we’ve always done things this way,” Gregory said, regarding the Legislature voting on a sewer proposal. “It’s the law. We stand by our actions and we’ll let the courts decide.”
County attorney Dennis Brown didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.
When asked about his plans moving forward, should the lawsuit fail, Wolkoff didn’t feel the need to comment. “It’ll happen. I don’t give up,” he said, citing the long and difficult history of the ongoing development.
Wolkoff first purchased the 450 acres on the grounds of the Pilgrim State Hospital from New York State in 2002. He has stressed, on numerous occasions, that the $4 billion project will take 30 years to complete. In addition to the 9,000 apartments, there will be one million square feet of retail space and three million square feet of office space, equaling 15.5 million square feet of development.
The Islip Planning Board, back in 2016, recommended the project be set in phases, with the first phase built on 133 acres. This allowed over 3,000 apartments, along with a lesser amount of retail and office space. This publication reported on these numbers in the article “Learn about Heartland,” published on March 23, 2017.
Wolkoff plans on using low-flow sewer technology, the same kind that was recently turned down by Great River residents, but approved in Mastic and in parts of the Town of Babylon. This technology, the developer said, will use significantly less wastewater than the county expects: 1.6 million gallons on a daily basis, as opposed to the county-projected 2.5 million, according to reports.
Last year, Wolkoff applied for a 50 percent discount on sewer connection fees that reports say would save him $12 million on the project. The discount, which applies to mixed-use projects on 10 or more acres with 15 percent affordable housing, would bring the $15-per-gallon fee down to $7.50.
Some have said that Heartland should build its own sewer plant, but Wolkoff said that’s not a viable option since the development would be located near a sensitive oak brush plain.
Our conversation with the developer quickly turned away from sewers and his lawsuit and moved to the general debate surrounding the project. Activists and residents alike have expressed environmental concerns about the development, while union reps have taken issue with the developer not agreeing to use all-union labor.
Wolkoff said he understands these concerns, referring to the increase in traffic. However, he insists that his project is “extremely important” for Long Island, adding that it would create an “economic boom” similar to the one he believes the Amazon HQ2 would’ve created in Long Island City, Queens, had the online retail giant not abandoned its plans. Wolkoff called developments like his the “new model,” not just on Long Island but also for around the world.
The developer said his apartments are for two age groups: millennials, who Wolkoff said need affordable places to live if they’re going to stay on Long Island, and empty nesters, who no longer need a house with multiple rooms. “If you have children, go somewhere else,” he added.
Brentwood School District filed a landmark lawsuit against both Heartland and Islip Town in 2017. The suit, which is still pending, was filed because of concerns over the scope of the proposed development and the anticipated impact it would have on the school district.
Suffolk County has until March 5 to respond to Wolkoff’s recent lawsuit.
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