The Lighthouse Project has been in an almost complete media blackout for the last few weeks, trying to get the Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement (FGEIS) finalized and waiting for the County Executive election (and Ed Mangano's almost certain victory) to be resolved. The Town of Hempstead has been similarly quiet, although we now have a piece from LIHerald.com in which Kate Murray inexplicably says the process is going "smoothly." The piece also quotes Councilman Gary Hudes, who represents surrounding communities such as Salisbury and East Meadow, saying publicly (potentially for the first time) that his constituents favor development at the site but want the Lighthouse Project "scaled back."
At this point, I think it's time to discuss both the public nature of these negotiations and something that has, in my opinion, been the largest detriment to the overall process: the Town o Hempstead's policy to not meet with developers because they will eventually vote on the zoning variance.
Negotiating in Public
I was incredulous when Kate Murray not only said the Lighthouse is going smoothly, but it is in fact going "more smoothly than they have in a while," but the Supervisor may be on to something. For too long, both sides have been talking either to the media or at each other instead of fulfilling their obligations and getting this project to completion. The Town of Hempstead was in the papers (and raised the ire of Lighthouse supporters) through such actions as the phony stimulus drive, the slanted mailers asking residents what they did not like about the Lighthouse Project, and the refusals to meet with the developers, citing "policy" and non-existent conflict of interest. It helped to set up an adversarial relationship, one that was exacerbated when sources inside the Town of Hempstead began telling B.D. Gallof and others that Charles Wang was a bully.
The Lighthouse Project has not been purely innocent, either. (Soon to be former) County Executive Tom Suozzi tied himself very closely to the project, constantly bashing Kate Murray and the Town and urging them to move forward. The Lighthouse constantly staged photo-ops over the summer with high-profile supporters such as Sen. Chuck Schumer, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and Gov. David Paterson, applying the pressure in a public way. This was solidified when, flanked by Mr. Wang and Islanders legends Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier, Suozzi dropped the puck on Opening Night at Nassau Coliseum.
Another source of stress that has died down recently was Mr. Wang's October 3 deadline, in which the owner promised to "explore other options" if the project was not approved in its entirety. The Town of Hempstead bristled, saying they did not put deadlines on the Islanders to win the Stanley Cup and should therefore not be pushed to approve it quickly. The Town constantly trumpets its speed of approval and sites the morass in which many other large projects find themselves as evidence that the Town is moving in good faith.
I wonder if there was a middle ground with this, and I wonder if we're not seeing that playing out right now. I understand Mr. Wang's deadline, because the Town of Hempstead has a bad history with large projects. It took 18 years from closure of the Roosevelt Raceway to ground-breaking on the condo projects, and others such as the Courtesy Hotel (West Hempstead) and the Bellmore Army Base have languished for over a decade despite viable options. The Supervisor's citing of long time to approval rings hollow, because, as I so love to say on this blog, past failure is not an excuse to fail again. It's clear the Town needs to be pushed to move quickly, but there needed to be some kind of give-and-take.
As one person connected to the political scene told me, "What would you do if you were Kate Murray and saw Suozzi constantly criticizing you and blaming you for the project not going through? Would that motivate you to move faster?"
A Strange Policy
Councilman Hudes is at least one of the first people to directly say the Lighthouse Project may need to be scaled down to receive ultimate approval, and it shines a light (no pun intended) directly on the Town of Hempstead's strange policy against meeting with developers before an actual vote. Other Town Supervisors on Long Island, including Jon Kaiman of North Hempstead and Phil Nolan of Islip, cite meeting with the developers early and often as one of the key reasons large projects have been brought to a successful completion. However, the Town of Hempstead took a different tactic, instead sitting like "judges" and waiting for the environmental review process to practically finish before making their position known.
This tactic has been in place from the beginning. Let There Be Light(house) has learned that meetings were held at the highest levels when the Lighthouse was first proposed publicly in 2004, and Kate Murray refused to participate for the same reasons she did not meet with the developers until the middle of this year.
I understand the sentiment to a point, because meeting with the developer so often would create the illusion that the project would be rubber-stamped, but there had to be a better way. At this point, we have gone over 5 years, and the Lighthouse has spent tens of millions of dollars on review, and we still don't know exactly where the Town of Hempstead, which holds zoning authority over the site, stands on the project. That is ludicrous. I can't help but think that, if the Town had involved itself from the beginning and been open about what they would and would not approve, the Lighthouse Project would have already been completed.
To make matters worse, I also believe this policy is the reason the Lighthouse now seems less willing to compromise. At the beginning of the year, Lighthouse leaders, including Mr. Wang and President Michael Picker, practically implored the Town of Hempstead to tell them what they would or would not approve so the Lighthouse could take the next steps. When that communication never came, the position seemed to harden, and now the Town is trying to paint Mr. Wang as unwilling to negotiate.
Regardless of the outcome of the Lighthouse Project, I think we can agree that the Town of Hempstead's policy of not meeting with developers is a disaster, and it should be immediately put under review after this project's studies have finished.
As we have speculated for months, it is now clear that the Town's major objections to the Lighthouse Project are from its size and scope. Even though I support the Lighthouse Project as it is proposed and am disappointed by this news, I have to admit that there will not be an agreement unless there is an agreement with which both sides can feel comfortable.
One positive side of this is that the Lighthouse Project will almost certainly be approved if it is changed to a degree that the Town feels comfortable with. My intelligence confirms what B.D. Gallof has previously reported on Hockey Independent: there are 7 votes on the Town Council (including Kate Murray), with 4 votes needed for the project to pass. Currently, 2 Council members are in favor of the project, with 1 against (I will not publish names - email me if curious). The other 4 (Kate Murray among them) are thought to be amenable to a project that adequately addresses their concerns.
This will require delicate negotiations, but this is a time to be bold. The Town of Hempstead must be specific in its requirements rather than asking Charles Wang to bid against himself, and it is my belief that the Town may have to make a proposal bigger than they would otherwise want in order to ensure a successful completion. Too many bold proposals have been rendered inadequate because of the phony dictum of "compromise," as if a project nobody really wants is a better solution than one side being extraordinarily happy or angry. This is something we need on Long Island, and we must not let it fail now.
The Town failed to provide a clear path to approval when things were done originally, but the opportunity is now there to right those mistakes.
Also, I have heard nothing about the ongoing environmental review. I will try to see what I can find.
Both sides have made their mistakes in this process, and the project is undoubtedly delayed as a result. I do not expect any movement before the new Legislature (and possibly Ed Mangano) are sworn in on January 1, but there is still time to break ground in Summer 2010 if all sides are committed to doing that. When all is said and done, the Lighthouse Project is the right one for Long Island. We must remember that and not get caught up in the back-and-forth.
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