Las Vegas Sands environmental review advances in Hempstead, despite court ruling

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The $4 billion casino resort proposal at the Nassau Coliseum site moves forward Thursday with public meetings on an environmental study led by the Town of Hempstead, despite a legal battle between the county and Hofstra University that had put the process on hold.   

Two "scoping sessions" are scheduled at the Long Island Marriott in Uniondale, at 10:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Town officials are expected to hear from Las Vegas Sands, the public and experts on air quality, water supply, open space and other impacts of the project as part of a multi-step study under the state's environmental quality review act, commonly known as SEQRA.

The study is required of the Nevada-based company as it seeks permission to develop a resort with Vegas-style gambling, entertainment, retail, a day spa, conference center and restaurants. Hempstead officials put the review on pause when a judge ruled in November that Nassau County should have studied the environmental impacts before granting Sands a 99-year lease for the property last May. The ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed by Hofstra University, located adjacent to the Coliseum and one of the most vocal opponents of Sands' plans.

Town officials changed course in recent weeks, saying Sands can operate the property under a separate lease previously held by Nassau Events Live LLC while the county appeals the ruling.

Casino opponents objected to the town's reversal, but legal experts said there wasn't much they could do to stop it.

Michael Gerrard, a Columbia University environmental law professor who authored a two-volume guide to SEQRA called "Environmental Impact Review in New York," said the courts "didn't freeze all action" on the project, although they "might just prevent the project from gaining final approval."

"It’s up to town officials to determine whether they want to devote the time and energy to go through the SEQRA process, but apparently they do," Gerrard said.

Yvonne Hennessey, a litigator based in Albany who chairs the state Bar Association's environmental law section, agreed. 

“The town can do its SEQRA review and the lawsuit should not impact that. That decision has nothing to do with the town. That’s a lawsuit against the county,” Hennessey said.

On Wednesday, Nassau's fight with Hofstra escalated as Republican County Executive Bruce Blakeman suggested the university is helping a competing casino developer derail Sands' bid for one of three downstate gambling licenses.

The GOP-controlled county legislature, through its presiding officer, Legis. Howard Kopel (R-Lawrence), has issued a subpoena to Hofstra President Susan Poser and university officials for all communication between the university and officials representing a proposal at CitiField in Queens by New York Mets owner Steve Cohen and Hard Rock Entertainment.

"Some might even say collusion to frustrate Las Vegas Sands' ability to get an application and frustrate Nassau County's ability to enter into an agreement with Las Vegas Sands," Blakeman said at a news conference.

Hofstra "denies colluding with Hard Rock or Steve Cohen" and "will respond to the Nassau County Legislature’s subpoena in compliance with applicable law," according to a university statement.

"This subpoena is just another spurious attempt to distract and impede a fair and open process regarding this transfer of Nassau County land," the statement said.