By Naeisha Rose
[UPDATE — 11:05 a.m., July 26, 2019: The public comment period has been extended to Aug. 1]
The period that local residents had to comment on a massive plan to build a hockey arena and shopping mall and turn a seasonal train station into a 24/7 transit hub in Elmont, Long Island are almost up.
And despite an extension until Aug. 1, the rushed schedule hasn’t been sitting well with people on both sides of the Queens border, located just a few hundred yards from the site of the proposed project. They say they have not had enough time to weigh in with their questions and concerns, and that a recent meeting to discuss the project was a charade.
The Belmont Park Redevelopment Civic and Land Use Improvement Project announced the 15-day public comment period after scheduling a board meeting with representatives of Empire State Development, the quasi-governmental organization that shepherds development projects in the state, for the evening of July 8. The agency gave residents just three days notice about the meeting.
After a comment period concludes, an agency can reply to concerns, facilitate further discussions, revise or abandon a proposal or move full steam ahead.
Shortly before the session began, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he would agree to introduce full-time service at the LIRR station in Elmont to go along with the Belmont project.
New York Arena Partners is leading the redevelopment and putting $30 million towards the LIRR station investment, according to ESD. New York State will be responsible for the other $74 million.
Two-thirds of the roughly 60 speakers either didn't want the project to go through or wanted the project to be scaled back and were incensed by the lack of transparency surrounding the Final Environmental Impact Statement meeting, they were shocked by the lack of funds NYAP will invest in the LIRR and the growing size of the development itself, which was originally touted in 2017 as simply a hometown arena for the Islanders, a hotel, and some shopping and dining venues.
"From the first meeting when we were introduced to the project, no one said 'no.' No one said 'never.' No one opposed it, no one refused to work hard to make the project work," said Mayor Dominic Longobardi of Floral Park.
Longobardi said he met with ESD officials several times leading up to the Final Environmental Impact Statement meeting and always fought to make sure that the concerns about parking, traffic, use of the LIRR, security, and quality of life were addressed.
"As this project progressed new elements were introduced such as the use of the south parking lot for the shopping experience, forcing a major majority of the parking to be behind the main racetrack and placed adjacent to our grammar school and many of our homes leaving our residents to deal with all kinds of issues like security, tailgating, and light and noise pollution,” said Longobardi.
Security and traffic concerns
Lynn Pombonyo, a Floral Park Trustee, suggested that the project go back to the draft phase since additions were being made to the redevelopment, such as electric shuttle buses from parking lots in Belmont Park that will serve LIRR riders traveling to the grandstand, the arena, the hotel and the retail village.
The shuttle buses will also transport crowds traveling to the annual Belmont Stakes.
"The station's proximity to the villages of Floral Park, Bellerose, Bellerose Terrace neighborhood, as well as the Floral Park Elementary School - with a playground and field will share an 1,100-foot fence line with Belmont's north parking lot," Pombonyo. "The use of Belmont Park Road for vehicular traffic, which includes cars and buses heading towards the new proposed railroad station on Belmont Park Road runs along the southern and western borders of Floral Park and is adjacent to approximately 24 Bellerose streets."
Floral Park Fire Chief Michael Longobardi, who runs a 100 percent volunteer fire department that is one of the few life support/first response teams in the area, noted that the neighborhoods near the development have limited infrastructure to sustain the project and that the fire department currently responds to 1,100-ambulance rescue calls annually and hundreds of fire calls.
"With the exception of Jericho Turnpike, the entire village is comprised of narrow streets with one lane in each direction at most," said the fire chief. "The side streets allow for parking and one main lane down the middle. If you ever try to move a fire truck in these streets, you would know it would be a tough task on a good day."
Plainfield Avenue, which connects Floral Park to Belmont Park, is a one-lane road, according to the fire chief.
Chief Longobardi also attended a security meeting about the project in May to address concerns, but the outline for the hotel and shopping village were not completed to allow for a full security study.
"How can we move forward in this day and age without proper plans and security stages done?" said Chief Longobardi. "The project is too big in its current form and will bring too much additional traffic to our town."
Support for the plan — and the Islanders
Long Island Association President Kevin S. Law sent a representative to speak on his behalf, and believes the project and the Islanders would be an economic boon for Long Island.
"As the leading business association in the region, the Long Island Association supports the Belmont Park Redevelopment project," said Matthew Cohen, vice president of the LIA government affairs reading a letter submitted by Law. "The project has the potential to create thousands of jobs, generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenue and attract thousands of visitors to the region.”
Kelly Lillibridge is a beneficiary of the Islanders' community support and has a son who has been fighting cancer for seven years.
"Not only do they have a Hockey Fights Cancer [program], some of the Islanders have their own foundations," said Lillibridge. "The Islanders have been a constant in my son’s life."
Since 1972, the Islanders have helped to fund local school districts, hospitals, fire departments and police stations, according to the team's co-owner Jon Ledecky.
"The plan put forward today is better thanks to [community] input," said Ledecky. "Simply put, the Islanders are the people's team."
Not convinced of community benefit
Belmont Task Force member Bernadette Smith also said the opaqueness and rushed nature of the project left made her feel disempowered.
She said she dug deeper into the plans for the development and began to question the community benefit of a development that seemed to lack adequate water and energy sources.
Smith said the lack of transparency and support for local businesses also made her feel uneasy.
"Calling this meeting at 5:15 p.m. on a Friday night of a holiday weekend is neither transparent nor responsive. It's disrespectful," said Smith.
The project would not actually benefit existing businesses, she added.
"At the current scale of this project, patrons will not be stopping at local bakeries or restaurants — they will be doing that on the Belmont campus,” she said. “The campus is designed to bring in patrons and keep them there."
A spokesperson for ESD said the agency had extended the comment period until Aug. 1 because it found two “minor clerical errors” in the Final Environmental Impact Statement.
“On Monday, ESD issued a notice re-certifying the completion of the project’s FEIS after identifying two minor clerical errors over the weekend,” the spokesperson said. “The corrected documents have been posted and hard copies distributed, and we are extending the public feedback period through August 1st to provide New Yorkers with further opportunity to comment. These actions will have no impact on milestones such as the opening of the arena.”
Correction: The public comment period for the project was extended from July 23 to Aug. 1 on July 23. An earlier version of this story indicated that the period ended on July 23.