by Eden Laikin
Nassau County has the opportunity to purchase and preserve one of the rare, remaining pieces of undeveloped farmland in the middle of the County and turn it into an educational and cultural center that will maintain its historic value.
The owner of the property – which most recently held a plant nursery along Stewart Avenue in Bethpage – said he turned down higher offers from local realtors and developers in favor of what the surrounding homeowners – his neighbors – would rather have there: no new multi-family housing, no more commercial trucks, the return of a cultural activity to the area and the preservation of a piece of farming history.
The land has been in the owner’s family since approximately1905, when his grandparents settled in the area.
The County Office of Real Estate Services got an appraisal done of the property and made an offer of $800,000 to the owner, based on that appraisal. The money used would come not from taxpayers but from the Open Space Fund which is made up of a percentage of the county’s property sales. That money must be used to preserve open space.
The owner happens to be a County employee, hired by Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano to be Deputy Parks Commissioner – responsible for overseeing the maintenance and upkeep of Nassau’s 70 or so, parks and preserves.
The Nassau County Ethics Committee has been asked to rule on whether there is a conflict of interest if the County were to purchase land from an employee. County officials say there is precedent for this arrangement in Nassau County under the prior administration.
The Bethpage property has been used for the past 3 decades to house Emil’s Plant Nursery, and has been in owner Frank Camerlengo’s family since the turn of the 20th century, when it was used for farming. While it sits in a residentially-zoned area, it’s considered a “pre-existing, non-conforming commercial use” because it existed before there was zoning. That designation, apparently, can “stay in perpetuity” for the next owner, experts say.
Neighbors would rather see the County buy and preserve it, protecting against over-development – the goal of Nassau’s Open Space program.
“If they (Emils) sell it privately, the buyers can do whatever they want with it,” said neighbor Nick Candito. ‘This (The County’s) is the best alternative we have. We’d love kids to be able to come in and learn how to farm.”
County officials said they hoped to have an entity such as Cornell Cooperative come in and manage the center as it does farmland in East Meadow.
The head of the Nassau Planning Commission – Jeff Greenfield – thinks it’s a good purchase of a rare piece of undeveloped farm land in the area. Local historians say it may be all that’s left of the agriculture and history of the area.
Lenny Mulqueen, President of Bethpage’s Historical Society, said: “We’re always looking at preserving history in town. But we’d like to make sure that nobody can come in afterward and do something else with the property.”
Ann Albertson, the Society’s Vice President, said she also thinks it’s a great concept and she definitely doesn’t want to see the property developed.
“We would love to see something preserved, in Bethpage, that is unique to our community,” she said. “This would be preserving farming history.”
Under the Suozzi administration, much of the open space purchased, with taxpayer money, was on the North Shore of Nassau, often adjacent to homeowner’s property making it not publicly accessibly. This land would be publicly accessible. In fact, Former County Executive Tom Suozzi spent $11 million in Environmental Bond money to buy 30 acres of peoples’ back and side yards from three adjacent homes in Oyster Bay Cove – all in order to stop the potential development of just 11 new houses.
In 2009, the County purchased a 1.77- acre mostly wooded piece of property for $600,000 from then County Human Resources assistant – Suozzi appointee – Gordon Allan. As was required, Allan filled out a disclosure form at the time of the sale. But, when the form asked if he held any public office in the County, Allan said “N/A.” In fact, Suozzi brought Allen in right after taking office in 2002 as Special Assistant to the Director of Human Resources. Mangano terminated him as part of the transition in December 2009. Gordon and his mother Gail Allan were members of the Coalition to Save Red Spring Woods, which lobbied for the County to buy all 11 acres of Red Spring Woods, back in Feb 2006.
Property owners are asked to fill out disclosure forms when the purchase goes before the County Legislature. Camerlengo’s sale hasn’t reached that point.
When former County Executive Suozzi asked the Legislature in 2009 to approve the purchase of the Hall property – 18 acres adjacent to the Muttontown preserve – he failed to mention that his wife, Helene, was a founding board member of the non-profit group that lobbied him for years to buy the land. Helene Suozzi was on the “founding board” of the North Shore Land Alliance, formed in 2003. The NSLA asked the County in March 2004 to preserve the property. According to the minutes from the session where legislators voted unanimously to approve the purchase, the land-owner wasn’t even interested in selling the property at first. Suozzi’s real estate people had to “put some pressure that he had to sell it to” them. It was basically part of the seller’s backyard. “There’s 120 acres there, we wanted more,” Real Estate employee Sean Rainey said, according to the minutes. “The owner of the property just wasn’t interested in selling anymore. We had to kind of, believe it or not, this is one of those rare situations where we had to kind of – we really wanted this done. We worked with the Village. We put some pressure that he had to sell to us. If this didn’t go through, I think he’d be fine with it, to be honest with you.”
There were no County-owned signs on the property when Mangano officials looked this summer.
Former Deputy Planning Commissioner Kathryn Schwab’s in laws sold a 5.9 acre piece of the backyard of the Schwab Estate to the County for $2 million in 2008. Kathryn, who came into the County in February 2003 as a community services representative in the Planning Department, resigned as deputy commissioner of Planning in December 2005.
And there is no viable public access to an 8-acre parcel in Oyster Bay Cove, Suozzi bought for $2.9 million from a County consultant, unless you trek through Tiffany Creek Preserve, or through a private road where the County has an easement. Once the title was transferred to the County, the consultant – Michael Held – no longer had to pay taxes on it. And while the $2.9 million purchase price was slightly higher than the appraised value, a former county real estate official said it was within 5% of what the seller wanted.