For Suffolk County officials, apparently all it takes is a developer’s “vision” of flashy condos and gourmet kitchens to justify supplanting current property owners from their livelihoods.
Tritec Real Estate executives have declared their intent to snatch up homes and businesses within a 50-acre swath of land selected for the Ronkonkoma Hub Project, a $350 million “transit-oriented development project” on central Long Island that will allegedly result in a profitable plethora of mixed residential and retail units. Most alarming is the company’s shameless plan to abuse eminent domain if the current owners do not agree to hand their property over to the would-be owners.
Tom Newman, a business owner of five acres within the planned hub site, advocated for the community as a whole in asserting that “The property owners would like to have had guarantees of participating in the project instead of outsiders coming in, instead of uprooting these families and their livelihoods.”
Ronkonkoma is an unincorporated hamlet in Suffolk County, N.Y., and is part of both the towns of Brookhaven and Islip. The idea for a redevelopment project was originally hatched in September 2011 when officials from both towns struck an agreement to collude in seeking state funding for a sewage treatment plant and other “infrastructure needs.”
As of December 2011, $4 million dollars had been allocated for the Ronkonkoma Hub sewage treatment plant, much to the delight of those on the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council. Councilman Tim Mazzei waxed ecstatic: “The $4 million we will receive for Ronkonkoma is great news…We will continue to move forward in our efforts to redevelop the area around the train station and create hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs.”
Concurrently, the Ronkonkoma Hub Design Team unanimously recommended Tritec Real Estate Company to be the master developer of the Hub. By February of 2012, the town of Brookhaven had entered into Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with Tritec in order to “formalize the Town’s relationship with Tritec and enable the Town and Tritec to work towards the redevelopment of the blighted area north of the Ronkonkoma LIRR station.” One must wonder how accurately the term “blighted” is being used when according to census bureau data from 2007-2011, the median household income for Ronkonkoma was $88,664 and only 4.7% of individuals were estimated to be living below the poverty line.
Nevertheless, Councilman Mazzei declared, “The community has been waiting for redevelopment at the Ronkonkoma Hub for a long time and I am pleased that the Town has made significant progress.”
But, contrary to the rosy rhetoric of the councilman, not all in the community are as agreeable to the hub project as his words seem to indicate. At a town meeting last April, Newman declared, “We’ve been kept in the dark, and we can’t make the business decisions we need.”
Since then, Newman’s initial misgivings have been vindicated. Tritec has obstinately refused to partner with the local property owners and impacted businesses, maintaining “that the project is not set up to allow small businesses to participate in the development phase.”
Local property owners are right to be skeptical of plans for government-sanctioned transfer of the homes and businesses they have worked so hard to own, especially when being explicitly stonewalled (in more ways than one) by a developer that only sees them as potential obstacles standing in the way of a profit.
— Robert Fountain
Robert Fountain is a Maffucci Fellow at the Institute for Justice