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Belmont Advisory Board approved by state

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On Dec. 20, with only a few days left in the 2019 legislative session, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill to create a Belmont Park Advisory Board. It takes effect immediately.

The decade-old bill was reintroduced in January by Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages and Sen. Anna Kaplan to establish a body that would give local residents a voice at Belmont Park, like those in place at Saratoga and Aqueduct racetracks since 2008. 

“This ensures parity between all three” New York Racing Association tracks, Solages, a Democrat from Elmont, previously told the Herald. “Both Saratoga and the Aqueduct have active community panels, and I look forward to seeing the same thing in our community.”

The board will have 15 members. The Nassau County executive can name five, four of whom must be from Elmont. The Town of Hempstead supervisor can appoint two additional Elmont residents. The NYRA can appoint three members; the Village of Floral Park and Queens Community Board 13, two; and the Village of South Floral Park, one. “It really does activate all the different communities,” Kaplan, a Democrat from Great Neck, noted.

As with the Saratoga and Aqueduct boards, the Belmont board will be able to present public endorsements or rejections of the latest developments at the racetrack, and must meet at least twice a year to discuss Belmont Park happenings and provide input from the local community to the state’s Franchise Oversight Board, which oversees NYRA.

Members can discuss any issues that arise, according to Solages, a Democrat from Elmont. They can even discuss issues related to the construction of a new hockey arena at the park as it relates to the racetrack, she said. 

But, Solages said, she hoped the focus would remain on the racetrack, saying, “We have to preserve what we have here.”

Tammie Williams, a member of the Belmont Park Community Coalition, meanwhile, said that if she were selected to serve on the board, she would use the opportunity to discuss the Franchise Oversight Board’s sale of state-owned land to the New York Racing Association  for the development of a 19,000-seat arena for the New York Islanders, a 250-room hotel, a community center, commercial office space and 350,000 square feet of retail space.

The board is charged with representing the state in any development at the Aqueduct and Belmont racetracks, under state law, which states that the development should only be completed after the FOB consults with a local advisory board. 

“It’s been 10 years of having our voice diluted,” Williams said, “and now we have a chance to join the conversation, and that conversation has to begin with the Franchise Oversight Board.”

Community boards were established under state law at Saratoga and Aqueduct in 2008, but not at Belmont Park. Williams and other Elmont residents have since  lobbied state officials for a board of their own, but several bills to authorize a community board failed to pass the State Legislature.

The first, sponsored by former Sen. Craig Johnson in 2009, was ultimately defeated, and Sen. Elaine Phillips’s bill in 2018 was included in the Assembly’s budget negotiations, where it was struck down at the 11th hour.

But Phillips’s bill, calling for members to be chosen by the State Senate majority leader, Assembly speaker and Franchise Oversight Board was also controversial. Under its provisions, no group could designate more than two individuals from any one community, drawing criticism from several Elmont residents, who were concerned about the redevelopment project.

Solages, meanwhile, struggled to gain support for her bill in the Senate until Kaplan took office last year. Kaplan read the bill, Solages said, and decided to co-sponsor it, pushing for its approval. “It was a long, hard fight,” Solages recalled, “and I’m glad that we were able to get it done.”

Timothy Denton contributed to this story.