22 Aug 2014
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Town Board Puts Off Housing Settlement

The Huntington Town Board Tuesday night decided against accepting the settlement of a housing lawsuit in favor of another round of negotiations.

Speakers evoked aliens from Mars, boarding houses, the needs of veterans and the courage of Nelson Mandela to try to persuade the Town Board to vote their way. But the board voted unanimously to delay a decision in favor of further negotiations. Lawyers are expected to conference call with a judge on Thursday.

At issue is a proposal to build apartments on Ruland Road in Melville where a key part of the dispute is whether the apartments should be owned or rented. A coalition of housing advocates representing veterans, young professionals and others are lobbying for affordable rental apartments with a range of bedrooms available, while others, including civic groups, are insisting on one-bedroom equity apartments.  

The NAACP sued a decade ago, saying the plan for one-bedroom apartment ownership discriminated against families and minorities. The apartments were proposed to make up for the lack of affordable family housing at the Greens at Half Hollow. The Town Board was directed by a judge to address the proposed settlement of a mix of rentals by Tuesday but it instead put on its agenda a resolution saying that "the settlement proposal as presented is unacceptable to the town..." and authorized more negotiations.

Speaker after speaker talked about the needs of residents or the future of the town. Several favoring rentals challenged the Town Board to lead the way by addressing the needs of many in the community. One said he hoped to see "a fraction of the courage of Nelson Mandela" from the board. Others cited their own circumstances or those of their relatives in needing affordable apartments, not ownership.  

Several speakers noted they had at one time or another rented and said they weren't aliens, or from another planet. "Renters are us," one said. When an opponent of rentals drew upon a Mark Twain quote about boarding houses and seemed to compare them to rentals, speakers denounced her remarks as fear mongering. 

But speakers opposed to rentals saw the apartments as a chance to strengthen home ownership and commitment to American ideals. 

"It is possible that tonight can actually be a great evening, one that gives hope and commitment to 117 potential homeowners. ..You can resolve to continue on a path that will lead to the American dream of homeownership for those who may not be able to afford, wish to or have the physical ability to maintain more than a small home," said Alissa Sue Taft, president of the Civic Association of Sweet Hollow, which has opposed rentals.
 
Also speaking was David Kaston, a trustee for the Half Hollow Hills Board of Education, who said the school board opposed rentals on the Ruland Road site. 

"We deliberated and discussed this; we do not disagree with much that has been said," Town Supervisor Frank Petrone said. "Truly we were the ones that pushed for veterans preference. We don’t have a problem with the developer or the NAACP. But we do have some other ideas," he said before the board voted to delay a decision. Petrone later declined to identify the new ideas, saying they would be presented by Thursday. 

"It's not over until it's over," said town Councilwoman Susan Berland, who has advocated for equity apartments.  "The ball is in their court."

After the vote, supporters of rentals criticized the decision and questioned what had led up to it. "We agreed to have a vote tonight," Chris Campbell, lawyer for the NAACP. "Now we've been fooled again." 

"Why did they reject the recommendation of their own attorney" to accept the settlement,  Richard Koubek asked. "What caused them to turn away?"

The town has spent more than $400,000 defending itself in the suit since 2009 and further negotiations could raise that cost. 

"Never have i seen a more widely supported effort for affordable rental housing in Huntington," said Ulysses Spicer of the NAACP.

The crowd clapped in support of various speakers but none so loudly as when retired Army Capt. James Van Thach finished speaking. The soldier, who spoke in favor of rental apartments, wears an eye patch and uses canes to get around, a result of his severe injuries received while serving in Iraq.

Also getting a public hearing was the Renaissance Downtowns request for a zoning change that would allow it to seek to build a hotel in Huntington Station. Representatives of the Huntington Community First Aid Squad, which would lose access to parking if the hotel is built, said the organization was in talks with Renaissance to help with the parking problem. Other speakers voiced support for the project, widely seen as the first step to a broader revitalization of Huntington Station, for which Renaissance has been designated master developer.

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