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Justice dismisses Belmont Park lawsuits

Posted

By Melissa Koenig

koenig@liherald.com

A State Supreme Court justice dismissed on May 11 the Village of Floral Park’s and various Elmont civic associations’ lawsuits seeking to reverse state approvals of the Belmont Park redevelopment project. They now have 30 days to challenge the ruling.

In his 13-page decision, Justice Roy Mahon noted, “The Court recognizes that the approval of the project goes against the village’s legitimate concerns with respect to the impact on its residents. Nonetheless, the Court’s review is limited to the evaluation of whether the determination was made in violation of lawful procedure, was affected by an error of the law or was arbitrary and capricious or an abuse of discretion.”

“Accordingly,” Mahon wrote, “the petition is denied, and the motions to dismiss . . . are granted.”

Plaintiffs in the case have expressed their dismay with Mahon’s decision. “I think this is a disappointment to many of us in the community,” Aubrey Phillips, vice president of the Parkhurst Civic Association, in Elmont, said.

Floral Park Mayor Dominick Longobardi posted on the village’s website that village officials would “continue to monitor the development of the project as it moves forward and work tirelessly to ensure any effects on our quality of life are minimized to the greatest extent possible.”

The village officials filed the suit last Sept. 9, 2019, asking the Supreme Court to overturn all prior approvals for the project, halt construction and restart the environmental review process. The suit alleged that state agencies pushed the New York Arena Partners’ plans to develop a hockey arena for the New York Islanders at the site without considering residents’ concerns, and that Empire State Development — the state agency that promotes development — needed to do a more thorough traffic study and release another environmental impact statement for modifications to the project that were introduced in the Final Environmental Impact Statement.

Only a few weeks later, a group of Elmont civic leaders filed another suit challenging the legality of the project. They claimed that Belmont Park is public land, and therefore cannot be sold to a private developer under the state’s Public Trust Doctrine. Their suit also alleged that state agencies violated the state’s Urban Development Corporation Act — which states that redevelopment should be done in areas where there are “substantial and persistent unemployment,” which they said Elmont does not have — and listed residents’ concerns about traffic on the Cross Island Parkway and a proposal to install two 30,000-gallon propane tanks underground to heat the arena.

Mahon combined the two lawsuits in November.

In his decision, he ruled that the ESD adequately addressed each of the village’s and Elmont residents’ concerns. The state agency, Mahon wrote, took “into account the factors [it] is accused of disregarding” when studying the project’s effect on traffic “but reached different conclusions with respect to the extent of the impact on the efficacy of mitigation.” Moreover, he said, the ESD took the required “hard look” at the project’s effects on traffic, and was “only required to thoroughly analyze the identified relevant areas of environmental concern.”

“It was not required to consider every conceivable environmental impact, mitigating measure or alternative,” Mahon noted, “and it was not required to reach any particular result.”

He also explained that the state agency “must consider a reasonable range of alternatives to the specific project, but the degree of detail required in assessing those alternatives will vary with the circumstances,” and that the ESD had demonstrated that its representatives had held a number of community meetings on the project and could therefore “rationally determine that local concerns were heard, addressed and acted upon where feasible.”

As for the village’s claim that New York Arena Partners — a consortium comprising the Islanders franchise, the Oak View Group and the Wilpon family — submitted a Master Plan to state officials before ESD issued a request for proposals, and designed the RFP with the Master Plan in mind, Mahon said that the village did not have cause to question the RFP process because it did not submit a bid itself.

Phillips said he disagreed with the decision, and claimed that much of the state’s evidence “were lies.” For example, he said, ESD officials claim in court documents that they met with an Elmont community group that no longer exists. “This case was adjudicated in a way that was beneficial to the state,” Phillips said, noting that community members will hold a socially distanced meeting to determine whether they will appeal the decision, and saying it is “very likely that this case will end up in federal court.”

State and local officials, meanwhile, said they were pleased with Mahon’s decision. ESD President Eric Gertler said it represented “a decisive victory for smart economic development,” and Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said, “We’re making progress toward a safe reopening, and outdoor construction projects like Belmont will be key to getting us on the road to economic recovery.”

Construction on the project — which includes a 19,000-seat arena for the Islanders, a 250-room hotel, a community center, commercial office space and 350,000 square feet of retail space — was halted in March, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a halt to all “non-essential” construction as the coronavirus pandemic spread.