Hochul veto changes little in Cleveland Avenue park debate

Efforts to involve Albany in local dispute falls short


(This corrects and updates a previous version of this story that appeared in the Jan. 5 edition of the Freeport Herald.)

Gov. Kathy Hochul has vetoed a bill backed by Freeport village officials that could have sped up the sale of the 9-acre athletic field on Cleveland Avenue — an effort opposed by Freeport school district officials who have used that field for decades.

Then-state Sen. John Brooks and Assemblywoman Taylor Darling introduced the bill last year designed to remove a parkland designation from the property. Doing that could have potentially accelerated a $49 million deal the village made with Panattoni Group, with plans to turn the site into a warehouse facility.

Village officials say the sale would not only provide immediate relief to property taxpayers — as much as a 20 percent reduction over four years — but that it also would return the land to the property tax rolls, creating revenue for both the village and the school district that they hadn’t had before.

The school district sued the village in September 2021 in an effort to preserve its access to the Cleveland Avenue field. Village officials filed a suit of their own last summer, claiming the school district was costing the village $45 million.

School district officials seek to maintain the space as an athletic practice field and recreation area. They have also rebuffed efforts by the village to offer a multimillion-dollar upgraded alternative athletic fields site in Cow Meadow.

The bill in front of Hochul would have removed a park restriction designation from the Cleveland Avenue site — something school officials claimed protected their control of the space. But the governor said it was too early for Albany to get involved, while leaving the door open she could be willing to revisit it again in the future once some of the court hurdles are overcome.

“These legal issues related to the property demonstrate that this issue is not resolved at the local level and should not proceed at this time,” Hochul said in a statement supporting her veto.

School district officials cheered the veto, but admitted there was a long way to go still in their efforts to block the sale.

"For the last 70 years, generations of students and residents have used Cleveland Avenue field because of its convenient and easily accessible location," Freeport school board president Maria Jordan-Awalom said. "In our view, the village has sought to force the district and the community it represents into accepting the loss of Cleveland Avenue field.”

A lawsuit filed last August by state attorney general Letitia James appeared to back the school district, trying to temporarily block the sale by contesting an environmental review process conducted by the village. 

“We would hope the school district would try to settle this matter,” said Howard Colton, Freeport’s village attorney. “So far, they have been resistant, and have spent $500,000 of taxpayer money.”

Village officials shared their side of the dispute in a newsletter distributed to Freeport households last summer titled "Cleveland Avenue: The Truth," outlining a sequence of back-and-forth between the Freeport school district and the village council over the park site. Part of that discussion includes moving athletic practices to Cow Meadow, located about 1.5 miles southwest of the Cleveland Avenue facility on South Main Street.

Plans for the Cow Meadow park renovation are still in progress, officials said, saying that will move forward no matter what happens on Cleveland Avenue. Overall plans, however, include installation of new turf fields, lights, and renovations to add basketball and tennis courts.

So far, the village has invested as much as $7 million in Cow Meadow’s redevelopment.

“I'm a parent and I have two children in this district,” Colton said. “We've always said from day one that the students would always have a place. We were going to renovate Cow Meadow based on the specifications that they (the school district) gave us. That way, it's what we've all agreed to.”

The sale of and construction of a new warehouse facility on the Cleveland Avenue field site could create at least 300 new jobs for Freeport, Colton said, while contributing more than $2 million to school district coffers, which could reduce tax burdens on property owners.

Opponents of the Cleveland Avenue sale gathered for what they called a "Last Chance Rally" last month, imploring Hochul to veto the measure. 

"Gov. Hochul has been our target audience for our actions because the rest of our representation is outright ignoring us," activist and Long Island Progressive Coalition board member Kiana Abbady said, at the rally. “We are calling on the governor to listen to the community and the courts and veto this dangerous legislation."

Jordan-Awalom believes the Hochul veto gives the district some hope in keeping the Cleveland Avenue field intact.

“Gov. Hochul understands that this bill was part of an unjust campaign by the village that would have harmed our communities,” she said. “We are thrilled she understands that the school district must not have its athletic facilities taken away.”