Mineola election turns into referendum on development

Noah Manskar

With one downtown apartment complex open, another nearing completion and two more on the horizon, the four-way race for two seats on Mineola’s Village Board has become a referendum on the village’s residential development over the past decade.

While they said they do not oppose development outright, challengers John Colbert of the Save Our Suburb Party and Larry Werther of the My Home Party — both former trustees and mayors — told Blank Slate Media in sit-down interviews the four projects containing 1,075 units have compromised Mineola’s suburban character as residents struggle with high property taxes and wealthy developers get tax breaks.

But incumbent Trustee Paul Cusato of the Hometown Party and Deputy Mayor Paul Pereira of the New Line Party defended the development, saying in sit-down interviews the projects have helped revitalize Mineola’s downtown and enriched the village with payments from developers that have lightened taxpayers’ burden.

“To steal my competitor’s thunder, I think it’s this kind of development that will save our suburbs,” Pereira said.

Residential development was conceived as part of Mineola’s “Master Plan,” a document adopted in 2005. The planning process was started under Colbert, and Werther was deputy mayor when the Village Board adopted it.

The village in 2007 created a development incentive bonus zoning law, which allows exceptions to the zoning code in exchange for community amenities or cash payments to the village.

The first two projects — the 275-unit Modera Mineola by Mill Creek Residential Trust at 140 Old Country Road, approved in 2008, and Lalezarian Developers’ 315-unit building at 250 Old Country Road, approved in 2012 — are south of the Long Island Rail Road tracks, which Werther called a “natural buffer” for the large-scale developments.

The Village Board approved two more projects north of the tracks in the past year — Lalezarian’s hotly contested 266-unit Village Green at 199 Second St. and Mill Creek’s two-building, 192-unit complex on Searing Avenue at the former Corpus Christi Elementary School.

Since entering the Village Board race, Colbert and Werther have said the board moved development too quickly with projects too large and inconsistent with Mineola’s suburban character.

Both have said trustees ignored the dozens of residents who opposed the Village Green project at public hearings, and Colbert charged the board has failed to sufficiently study the buildings’ impact on traffic, parking and water and sewer infrastructure.

“They’ve angered a lot of people with this development,” said Werther, who has compared Mineola’s projects to LeFrak City, a Queens neighborhood of 20 16-story buildings housing 14,000 people.

Colbert called for a time-specific moratorium on new development, and Werther said he would wait at least two years after the completion of the Searing Avenue project before considering others.

Neither Colbert nor Werther said they were opposed outright to more projects, and would consider any proposal that came forward. 

But Colbert would not approve any project with more than 100 units, he said.

“I am not against development,” Colbert said. “I want it to be sensible government for the suburban quality of life meant for the Village of Mineola. I want to put in here what the people want.”

Pereira and Cusato disputed Colbert and Werther’s claims that the village has been too hasty with development.

Starting with the Master Plan’s adoption, development has taken place over more than a decade, Pereira said.

All four projects match the character of their surroundings, Pereira said, and other villages, such as Great Neck, have successfully undertaken similar development initiatives.

“Nobody compares Great Neck to LeFrak City,” he said.

Developers have conducted traffic studies for their projects, Pereira said. A village-commissioned study found Mineola’s water and sewer infrastructure can handle the development, he said, and a villagewide parking study is underway.

“The projects that have come to us make sense to us where they’re being put,” Pereira said.

Pereira has recently characterized a change in village law removing the board’s obligation to hear apartment projects as a moratorium, and said in an interview he would wait at least four years to see how the existing projects “pan out.”

Cusato said he might consider another large-scale project under the right circumstances.

“Never doesn’t mean never,” he said. “I just need a chance to look at the plans.”

Werther and Colbert have criticized the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements the Nassau County Industrial Development Agency has given the developments.

The agreements effectively giving developers a discount on property taxes and exemptions from sales and mortgage taxes for 20 years have shorted the village revenue it would have gotten if the projects were fully taxed, they said.

The village gets a percentage of the PILOT money and is entitled to cash payments under the development incentive bonus law and host community benefits agreements, which Pereira and Cusato said have enriched the village.

While Colbert and Werther have praised the development incentive bonus funds, they said the tax breaks benefit developers while residents struggle with high taxes and don’t see any of the money the village takes in.

“It’s been a benefit to the village, however, not to the village taxpayers, because the village taxpayers are not getting what they should be getting in return for those properties that are going up,” Colbert said.

Pereira and Cusato rejected that claim.

With the development incentive bonus funds and host community benefit agreements, Pereira said, Mineola will get more money over the 20-year tax break period than it would have if it was only getting full property taxes from the buildings.

The money has allowed the village to pay for capital improvements without borrowing — as Colbert did — or shifting the cost to taxpayers, the incumbents said.

“When I take my granddaughters to Emory Road park, and I see all these people with their carriages coming to the park as opposed to Herricks Road, I think we did a good thing,” Cusato said.

Development has also helped the Master Plan’s aim of revitalizing downtown business, Pereira said.

Thriving businesses will help make the area more welcoming and friendly to families rather than the “ghost town” it has long been, he said.

“I think it’s this kind of development that will allow us to enjoy our suburban quality of life, because we’re not going to tax our seniors out of our homes, we’re not going to tax our young people out of our homes,” Pereira said.

Mineola voters will go to the polls March 15 from noon to 9 p.m. in Village Hall at 155 Washington Ave.

Trustees are paid $14,500 each year. The top two vote-winners will take the two available seats.

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