Land’s End

Long Island Construction Law does not own this content. This content was created by David Winzelberg and was published to the Long Island Business News on May 27, 2021.

As America’s first suburb, Long Island grew quickly in the years after World War II, when returning GIs sought to put down roots and raise families.

Starting in 1947 with Levitt & Sons, which built thousands of new homes in an area called Island Trees that would come to be known as Levittown, residential neighborhoods began springing up in Nassau and Suffolk counties in the second half of the 20th century as homebuilders gobbled up woods and farmland to build massive subdivisions of single-family houses.

While developing subdivisions of 75 or 100 single-family homes on Long Island were common 30 years ago, those are now relics of history. Today, as land has become scarcer and much more expensive, single-family subdivisions are shrinking fast.

“It’s strictly a matter of land availability. All the good land for direct subdivisions has already been built on, which is why we all live there,” says Mitch Pally, CEO of the Long Island Builders Institute. “The large tracts necessary to make something happen are significantly limited to only certain areas, mainly in Suffolk County. As each subdivision gets built, you run out of land availability. And because we’re an island, sooner or later, we hit water.”

Over the last two decades, many homebuilders who used to focus on single-family projects have turned their attention to denser multifamily developments where they can get a bigger yield with smaller amounts of property. The approval process for multifamily projects is also usually less cumbersome than for single-family subdivisions, since each single-family lot requires its own lengthy process.

“Each lot needs separate approval when you build a subdivision. You are subdividing each house into a separate tax lot, because you’re selling each lot to an individual person,” Pally said. “And then if the lots you are building are not in areas with sewers, you have to go through that whole process with the health department. There’s no question it makes the process longer.”

Jeremy Longo, a principal of Belfor Property Restoration, can attest to that. Longo is developing a 22-single-family-home subdivision on 28 acres in Fort Salonga that’s already been four years in the making.

“Nothing moves quickly, and everything takes months between submissions,” Longo told LIBN. “If there’s one question, you have to revise and then resubmit and then it’s months again. So the time in between can wear out anybody. The longer you have to hold these properties the more money it’s costing you.”

Though the company’s main business is disaster restoration, it has been building one-off, high-end custom homes out east for many years. Its new project, called Brenna Estates, is the largest subdivision development it has yet undertaken.

The new community is named for Leo Brenna, the founder of Bren-tronics in Commack, who died in 2014 and had owned the sprawling property located just west of Bread and Cheese Hollow Road. The large manor house that Brenna lived in is the only existing residence on the property, which also features a pond, horse barn and corral.

“He used it like parkland, he had landscape lighting everywhere,” Longo said. “You could turn around at night and walk around like you were in Wildwood State Park or something. It’s really pretty.”

Though construction just started on the first two houses in the subdivision, 10 of the custom homes yet-to-be-built in Brenna Estates are already in contract or reserved to be purchased. They started at $1.1 million and some went above $2 million.

“We had a few clients who went full custom,” Longo said.

The Brenna Estates project is one of the largest single-family subdivisions being developed in western Suffolk, as most of the bigger subdivisions are still being built further east.

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Attorney Larry Davis, of the Patchogue-based Davis & Prager law firm, has a couple of clients working on a planned 47-home subdivision in Rocky Point, a 40-home subdivision in Ridge and an ongoing 31-home subdivision in Medford. But Davis acknowledges that single-family projects of those sizes are fewer and farther between.

“Towns are concentrating on multifamily subdivisions, which are the rental communities, the condos, the over-55 communities and the builders have gotten away from single-family residences, at least as far as I have seen,” Davis said. “A 20-lot subdivision is a big deal today, because you have dwindling land, you don’t have those larger swaths of land that used to be able to just subdivide and build single-family housing.”

Davis, who has himself developed some new single-family houses, mostly one or two at a time, said building new homes these days is not nearly as easy as it used to be.

“It’s land availability, land costs, you have government, and you also have the naysayers, the communities themselves,” Davis says. “It’s a systemic problem where you have to have a perfect formula in order to get a job approved today. You have to have the towns and the communities behind you in approving those developments. It’s become much more difficult than when we were building these jobs 35 years ago when I first started.”

One of the last sizeable single-family home subdivisions developed in western Suffolk was the 47-home Harborfields Estates built on 39 acres of formerly vacant land on Pulaski Road in Greenlawn. Developer Len Axinn, principal of Island Estates, began construction on the project in Jan. 2016 and the development, where the homes were priced from the mid $800,000s to over $1 million, was sold-out in less than two years.

“That was right in our sweet spot and it worked out very well for us,” Axinn said. “We had a very good product.”

Though Harborfields Estates is a large subdivision by today’s standards, the company had developed much bigger projects in the past.

In the 1990s, Island Estates built 141 single-family homes on about 50 acres in Shoreham and partnered on a 150-lot single-family home subdivision called the Three Village Club in Setauket with AVR Realty, where Island Estates developed 74 of the lots.

After working for 49 years, Axinn is taking a step back from housing development, though two of his daughters and a son-in-law have recently gotten involved. The second generation is currently working on smaller-scale projects, such as a four-lot single-family home subdivision in East Northport and a six-lot subdivision in Islandia.

And speaking of smaller subdivisions, Franklin Square-based Pironi Homes is one of the few homebuilders that still concentrates on Nassau County, where most of the available land has dried up. Instead, the company that’s been in business for about 40 years, works on simple-splits, where an older house is demolished and the lot is divided to make room for two new ones.

“We haven’t done a huge subdivision in quite a long time,” said Paolo Pironi, who represents the third generation of Pironis in the homebuilding business.

In the 1980s and 1990s, his father Angelo and his grandfather Paolo built larger subdivisions in places like Woodbury and Coram.

“As soon as the 2000s hit, that was it. There was not much property left,” Pironi said. “We have a five-home subdivision in Woodbury and a seven-home subdivision in Massapequa in the pipeline. That’s probably the largest that we’ve done in the last 10 years.”

Pironi, who is also a candidate to represent the 18th District in the Nassau Legislature, says single-family home building, even on a smaller scale, has many challenges these days.

“Right now, the cost of land and the costs of building a house is absurd,” Pironi said. “The availability of materials is so scarce now it’s unbelievable. That’s a big issue for us as well.”

Meanwhile, finding property on which to build, especially in Nassau, is the most challenging.

“There’s a huge demand and almost no inventory,” Pironi said. “Everything goes into bidding wars now. That’s become a huge obstacle. As builders, we don’t have the time to do that. We want to get in there, we want to buy it, we want to turn it over, we want to get the permits and build.”

John Caravella Esq., is a construction attorney and formerly practicing project architect at The Law Office of John Caravella, P.C., representing architects, engineers, contractors, subcontractors, and owners in all phases of contract preparation, litigation, and arbitration across New York and Florida. He also serves as an arbitrator to the American Arbitration Association Construction Industry Panel. Mr. Caravella can be reached by email: [email protected] or (631) 608-1346.

This is a general information article and should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. The content above has been edited for conciseness and additional relevant points are omitted for space constraints. Readers are encouraged to seek counsel from a construction lawyer who has experience with Long Island construction law for advice on a particular circumstance.

Long Island Construction Law does not own this content. This content was created by David Winzelberg and was published to the Long Island Business News on May 27, 2021.