Supe: Great Rock could build villas if town owned course

05/13/2010 12:00 AM |

The owners of Great Rock Golf Course in Wading River says
they’ll be forced to close down without income from rental

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter is kicking around a plan to allow the owners of Great Rock Golf Course to build their coveted rental villas along the greens in Wading River. But first, they’d have to turn the property over to the Riverhead Town.

“This would make it a town-owned golf course, and we would license it back to them at the rate of however much their taxes are,” Mr. Walter told the News-Review this week.

Great Rock’s owners have said the golf course will close in about three months unless they can get zoning changes that would permit them to build 55-and-over rental villas. Great Rock last week submitted a petition with signatures from 100 nearby residents who support at least allowing a public hearing on the golf villa proposal — although 13 of them later signed another petition reversing their positions.

As for his private-public partnership proposal, Mr. Walter recalled that during a recent meeting he and the Town Board had with Richard Amper of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society environmental group, Mr. Amper said zone changes and code amendments should have some sort of public benefit, instead of just aiding individuals or developers. “The golf course would be a public benefit,” the supervisor said, noting that if the business failed even with income from the villas the town would still get a golf course out of the deal.

But before moving forward with any plan to help Great Rock stay afloat, Mr. Walter said, he first wants to meet with the company’s banker and accountant to review claims that the golf course, and Blackwells Restaurant there, are not making enough money to survive.

“The issue is: Does the business model of a golf course and catering hall work? And if not, will we start to see them fail elsewhere in town, one by one?” Mr. Walter said.

If the problem is not the business model, but merely how the business is run, he said, that would be different. “If the golf course goes out of business and they file for bankruptcy, I don’t want to let a bankruptcy judge determine its [fate],” Mr. Walter said.

Paul Elliot, a principal of the Great Rock group, could not be reached for comment. Mr. Walter said Tuesday that he had not yet told Great Rock of his proposal.

Vic Prusinowski, a consultant for Great Rock, said, “This is the first we’ve heard of it and we don’t understand the proposal. We need more details.”

Mr. Prusinowski said Great Rock still has a mortgage on the golf course and that, in the past, they’ve offered the town the deed to the property in exchange for the villas on the condition that it would remain open space if the course went out of business.

Dominique Mendez, a neighboring resident who has been critical of Great Rock in the past, said, “This sounds like another scheme to ‘fashion an excuse’ to give this group of businessmen the yield they want to expand. Any plan that includes high-density housing sells out the residents.”

Mr. Walter said he does not believe Great Rock can build any more houses under the current zoning, but that he would seek some mechanism to allow the villas — the course’s owners have proposed 54 — in exchange for ownership of the golf course.

Other Town Board members said they hadn’t yet heard Mr. Walter’s pitch, but did offer their thoughts.

“This is news to me, but if the neighbors were for it, I’d support it,” Councilman George Gabrielsen said. “The concerns of the residents come first.”

“I’d like to have a public hearing first to get information from the public,” Councilman John Dunleavy said. “If most people are in favor of it, I’d go along with Sean on this.”

“I’m not so sure that’s the way to go,” Councilman Jim Wooten said. “I’d like to hear what the public has to say, but if we did this for one applicant, I can’t imagine the flood that would follow, where everybody else would want the same thing. You might as well throw the master plan away.”

“Golf courses don’t make money, they cost money,” Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said. “I would want to see a business plan on how we’d make the golf course profitable first.”

Great Rock built on 140 residential lots and the golf course in 1994 through a recreational overlay zone. In 2004, the town changed the underlying zoning from one-acre minimum lot sizes to two-acre minimum lot sizes, and eliminated the overlay zone for future uses.

In 2006, Great Rock bought additional land and moved the driving range off the golf course and onto that property, according to town planning director Rick Hanley, who said they then sought, unsuccessfully, to build 78 golf villas on the land where the driving range had been.

According to Great Rock’s latest proposal, the villas would be owned by the owners of the golf course, with renters restricted to people who are at least 55 years old. In the case of a couple, at least one of them must be 55 or older, and no one under the age of 18 would be allowed to live there. At least one of the occupants of each villa would be required to be a member of the Great Rock Golf Club, and each villa would be no bigger than 1,500 square feet.

That description was printed at the top of the petition Great Rock submitted.

But this week, 13 of the people who signed the petition submitted another petition asking that their names be retracted from the first petition.

“I do not feel I was given an accurate enough description of the situation, the impacts of the project, or the implications of the proposed public hearing to fully understand what I was supporting with my signature,” the second petition reads.

All 13 of the signatures on the second petition were from residents on the same street, Deer Run. Ms. Mendez, who helped gather the signatures on the second petition, said that was the only street they went to.

“Our theory was, we didn’t feel compelled to go to every single home they went to,” she said. “We just wanted to take a subset, and see if our hunch was right.”

Ms. Mendez said they went to 14 people and only one didn’t sign their petition.

Mr. Prusinowski told the Town Board last week that the petition only asks people to support a public hearing, not necessarily the villas proposal itself.

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