The Rockville Centre Planning Board voted unanimously on Aug. 6 to grant final approval to a land subdivision at 220 Hempstead Ave., closing out a three-year saga. The decision allows for the 1.75-acre land to be split into plots for six single-family homes, and includes the construction of a new road leading to the rear four houses.
The meeting was a continuation of a June 19 public hearing, at which the Planning Board announced preliminary approval of the subdivision with several conditions, reversing a previous decision.
Steven Leventhal, the board’s attorney, called an executive session at the beginning of last week’s meeting. He and board members left the room for 25 minutes before returning to vote on the subdivision. In an email to the Herald, Leventhal wrote that he convened the executive session “to discuss pending litigation.”
Meanwhile, about a dozen village residents opposed to the subdivision waited, outraged. Although they knew the board would approve the subdivision, they came to witness and protest, saying there was a lack of transparency throughout the years-long process.
The Planning Board returned and made a motion to vote on the item. Robert MacAnney, a Raymond Street resident who has filed a pending lawsuit on the matter, interrupted. “Before you vote, one thing: That stipulation on June 19 wasn’t publicly available until [June 20],” he said. “We’re getting disrespected for months. Why was this a public hearing? In what way was this public?”
A village police officer, who was present for the entire meeting, told MacAnney not to interrupt. Board members then moved to approve the plot plan and adjourned the meeting, actions with which residents expressed their disapproval.
“Shameful,” said Margie Klein, who lives at Raymond Street and Hempstead Avenue, across from the proposed project. “You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
While the vote occurred during a public work session, community comment was not permitted. In addition, Planning Board members did not speak publicly on the decision before the final vote.
A long road to approval
“We’re pleased with the decision and happy that the long process has come to an end,” said Christian Browne, the attorney for Jim and Brett O’Reilly, the owners of 220 Hempstead Ave.
The O’Reillys began the process to subdivide their property in 2016. The village put a moratorium on the case in July 2017, which a Nassau County Supreme Court judge nullified that October. At the time, the O’Reillys made several changes to their initial plans, which included increasing the number of houses from four to six and widening the proposed street into a cul-de-sac, Browne said.
The Planning Board voted against the subdivision, 3-1, in November 2018, saying the project did not fit the village’s character. The next day, the O’Reillys filed a legal appeal.
On May 7, the two parties reached an agreement before Nassau County Supreme Court Judge Randy Sue Marber. They settled on more than 30 conditions, originally recommended by Leventhal if the board had granted preliminary approval to the project in November. The conditions included a $50,000 payment by the O’Reillys to the Village Park Fund, to be used exclusively for parks, playgrounds or recreational facilities, and the planting of trees along Hempstead Avenue.
“The parties request that [this stipulation] be so ordered by the court,” Leventhal said in the court proceeding, according to a transcript filed on the court website.
The transcript was made public online on June 20, the day after the Planning Board preliminarily approved the subdivision. “They ratified the stipulation based on public comment, [but] they didn’t give it to us. It wasn’t public until they approved it,” MacAnney said. “So what possible comment could we have on it?”
At the June 19 public hearing, residents were not given an explanation of the court order and were told to file a Freedom of Information Law request for the transcript.
“The judge signing [the transcript] when she did was not in any way a delay,” said Daniel Bagnuola, a Nassau County Court spokesman. “It was simply when she received it and had time to review it.”
He added that the transcript was properly processed by the county clerk’s office, which filed it on June 20.
“If there are aspects of Rockville Centre that are attractive to any potential family or resident who wants to live here, it’s the fact that there’s a great quality of life,” said Michael Mulhal, a Lincoln Avenue resident. “The quality of life is defined by the houses [being] set apart a specific distance.”
Village residents have cited several concerns about the pending project, including prolonged construction, destruction of greenery and historic property, added traffic and setting a precedent for future development.
April Rachmuth, a Hempstead Avenue resident, noted that while development is important for community growth, it must be in character with the area. She argued that having homes so close to one another would detract from “the beauty of Hempstead Avenue.”
“I didn’t move to Queens. I moved to Rockville Centre,” she said. “Don’t take away what makes Rockville Centre special.”
Rockville Centre is known for its greenery and historic houses. New York state named the village a “Tree City USA” for nearly three decades in recognition of its open spaces and tree-planting initiatives.
In addition, the village formed the Mayor’s Task Force for Historic Preservation in October 2017. Through a grant acquired by the task force, Long Island Traditions, an organization that evaluates local history, found that more than 500 homes in Rockville Centre could be considered highly historic.
“The Village of Rockville Centre is committed to preserving the quality of life and keeping the community an outstanding place to live, work, play and raise a family,” village spokeswoman Julie Scully wrote in a statement in the Herald’s past reporting on the issue.
There is some dispute about whether the O’Reillys’ home is technically “historic.” The late-19th-century home was the former parsonage of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church for decades, according to reports by Preservation Long Island and New York State’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. The document states that if the house is demolished, “There will most likely be a significant and irreversible adverse impact on historic resources.”
The subdivision’s environmental assessment form, however, states that the applicant is not obligated to preserve the home because it is not on the National Register of Historic Places. However, “should members of the public or any local historical society wish to move the house to a new location, the applicant would donate the house for such purposes,” the document says.
The village and county departments of public works have reviewed the project’s environmental assessment form, which includes traffic studies and a construction plan, among other vital information, and both found “no adverse environmental impact,” Browne said.
Ultimately, “the planning board had a duty to follow the law in deciding the application,” Leventhal noted. “The law does not allow the planning board to deny an application based on community opposition.”
MacAnney’s challenge to the court’s decision, in which he is determined to defend the Planning Board’s initial November decision, is still pending.
The village board of trustees must now approve Killarney Lane, a proposed street perpendicular to Hempstead Avenue that would allow access to the four homes planned for the rear of the property. A change.org petition has about 800 signatures calling on the village not to endorse it.
It is unclear when construction will begin. since the final map must be approved by Nassau County. “We look forward to completing the project,” Browne said. “We think it will be a great addition to the village, and the community will be pleased.”