Protecting Great Neck’s Only Undeveloped Land

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There is a three-acre woodland hidden between Old Mill Road and Clover Drive. In the late 1990s, when a developer was given permission to build an apartment building on the corner of Old Mill Road across from Temple Beth-El, a covenant written into the Village of Great Neck’s decision barred him from using that property to access the three-acre woodland behind it, which he and various members of his family and associates own. That real estate, that woodland, worth what some might call a fortune, has cost the developer a pittance in property tax, maybe $1,000 a year, since it was categorized as unbuildable by the county because of its topography and its status as our peninsula’s watershed.

This three acres straddles two villages, the predominant portion is in the Village of Great Neck. With access denied from one side of the woodland, the developer bided his time and eventually purchased a house on Clover Drive in the Estates to gain access from the other side of the woodland.

In 2011, the developer applied to the Village of Great Neck to build 11 houses with one more desired in the adjacent Village of Great Neck Estates, 12 houses to be shoehorned into the space, millions of pounds of earth to be bulldozed and rearranged. He received approval from the Village of Great Neck, and his application is now before the Board of Trustees of Great Neck Estates.

If the trustees of the Estates shoulder this burden well, they will protect their own village while redressing a sloppy decision from the Village of Great Neck, and we will all owe them a debt of gratitude.

This watershed, this wilderness, is in all our backyards, and we all need to know and care, which is why I am sharing the letter I wrote to the trustees of Great Neck Estates.

Dear Sirs:

In the case of the decision you face in the application of Old Mill 2 LLC to Allow a Private Road, a New Road, Into the Three-Acre Woodland and the Watershed, and to Allow the Private Road to Unite with a Village Public Road, there are a few factors on which you will base your decision, one of which is the overarching issue of safety.

From beginning to end, from entrance to turnaround, the private road is unsafe, and the attempts to adjust the public road, Clover Drive, to accommodate the introduction of a private road render the public road unsafe as well.

The applicant’s attorney is zealous in reminding you that you are deciding only the Estates’ portion of the private road as it emanates from the public road in your village. His reminder carries an incorrect implication: that you bear no responsibility for what happens on the cul-de-sac road and its turnaround that are beyond the pencil line across the road where the Village of Great Neck Estates ends and the other village begins. Consider this metaphor:

The road beyond the pencil line is an acetylene torch waiting to be lit. That torch is connected at your end to the tanks, the supply of acetylene and oxygen. Without the tanks, the torch cannot ignite. Great Neck Estates will be, forever, the source of that private road, tanks to torch.

Safety, in the developer’s application, is entirely subject to What If:

What if the New York State Fire Code allowed the 80-foot cul-de-sac turnaround offered by the developer instead of the 96-foot turnaround mandated by law.

What if the New York State Fire Code had anticipated the cynicism that would conceive of a make-believe 96-foot turnaround.

What if the New York State Fire Code, the law on fire safety, had legislated that front lawns bordering cul-de-sac turnarounds could double as roadway (so skimpy, inadequate turnarounds seem adequate on paper).

What if the buyers of the properties bordering the cul-de-sac turnaround could be persuaded to purchase their homes with the restriction that they would agree to never plant trees or place impediments on their front yards (leaving eight feet on lawns and driveways available as part of the roadway and in readiness for an unexpected onrush of emergency vehicles).

What if no-parking signs are placed on one side of the cul-de-sac roadway.

What if no-parking signs are placed on both sides of the cul-de sac roadway.

What if the residents on this private road and their guests and service contractors never park in violation of the no-parking signs.

What if they all park in violation of the signage, but only one emergency vehicle is summoned at a time and it is able to maneuver past vehicles parked illegally.

What if, since there are no sidewalks, neighbors and friends walking in the road are eternally without jeopardy.

What if, in the absence of sidewalks, all pedestrians walking in the road are nimble and able to hurry out of the way of vehicles.

What if the village adds a two-way stop sign on the public road outside the private road.

What if the village adds a three-way stop sign.

What if the village also adds a sign warning of upcoming stop signs (one, two, three).

What if the sight lines for Clover Drive traffic are adjusted.

What if the wall that is there were not there, or lower.

What if the homeowners’ association for the 11 households in charge of the future private road proves to be cooperative, compliant and sanguine, never blaming Great Neck Estates for what ails the cul-de-sac dwellers after a storm, after a fire.

What if the homeowners’ association never appeals to Great Neck Estates to accept the private road as a public road to figure out how to plow it, how to make it safe.

What if the trustees take at face value the lawyers’ advice that Great Neck Estates will be blameless for whatever disaster occurs on the part of the cul-de-sac beyond the village’s pencil-line border on a road allowed and approved by the Estates.

The developer is asking you to whittle away at your expectations for safety. There is sufficient acreage and the proposed private road could have been wider, could have been bordered by a sidewalk on each side leading to a turnaround whose dimensions were not a shell game, not an 80-foot diameter pretending to be 96. Had safety guided this application, multiple emergency vehicles could have come and gone at the same time (as they often are called upon to do in an emergency) without the myriad obstacles built into this application.

(The 2013 underground fire on several acres in Kings Point Park had at least 45 fire companies respond. I was there. I saw the assembly of vehicles and manpower, the helmeted firefighters working in shifts, the helicopter overhead. That threat to the safety of village homes exemplifies why there is no excuse for haphazard, improvised measures to compensate for a flawed plan and a road you have to make excuses for.)

Meanwhile, a crucial requirement for safety seems to have slipped out of sight: the need for an alternate access. This proposed private road has a hairpin entrance from the public road and a burdensome length. Surely safety necessitates another way in and out.

On the evening of Dec. 11, 2017, at your hearing, the developer’s spokespeople readily made tiny concessions one after the other in the hope of soothing your greater concerns about safety. The attorney also offered the selling point that the houses will have sprinklers, an obvious distraction from the fact that firefighters and their apparatus will be stymied on this private road and in the woods around it. Sprinklers are not a substitute for firetrucks, ambulances and the skilled personnel they bring.

As to the developer’s pavers, they were grow-through in the earlier application to the Village of Great Neck, intended as both roadway and front lawns. Now, at Great Neck Estates, the proposed pavers are not grow-through, an attempt to mask their dual purpose. Two illustrations:

My neighbor, a landscaper, decided to denude his front yard and start over because it had too many weeds. During the last growing season, his front lawn was a tract of dirt. I don’t refer to it as his dirt, and neither does he. We call it his lawn. Similarly, the private property owners on the proposed cul-de-sac will view the pavers on the rim of the 80-foot turnaround as their front lawns. The homeowners will reclaim the pavers, their lawns, and that mythical extra 16 feet of the turnaround will disappear because it was never there to begin with. The turnaround will be too small for firefighting apparatus.

Take a look at Redbrook Road between Gay and Gilbert. There is a section of sidewalk that acquired a grassy overlay. That non-grow-through sidewalk looks like lawn, and the pavers around the rim of the proposed cul-de-sac turnaround will revert in a similar manner, leaving the turnaround to its actual and insufficient 80-foot diameter.

For millennia, the peninsula’s watershed was untouched. Dwellers here for hundreds of years built around its perimeter and did not disturb its purpose, respecting the intricate nature of a watershed. Disrupting a watershed whose outflow extends to Udall’s Mill Pond and the bay beyond will prove irreversible. To build the private road and level the acres in the watershed for houses, the developer will move tons of earth with unpredictable consequence to the well-being of the community.

A reminder: The representative of New York State and its Fire Code, Courtney Nation, declined, in writing, to give support to this application.

The applicant in this matter has a history of litigiousness (recall, among other things, his short-lived lawsuit against two specific members of the Planning Board of the Village of Great Neck, the two females on the board of five). Don’t let him make you quail. Have the courage to stand together to safeguard the community you were elected to serve.

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