The 35-story indoor ski mountain would soar over bucolic pine barrens and farms at the twin forks of Long Island.
Developers envision a gleaming $2 billion complex of eight resorts in one, rising out of a Cold War defense facility where the Navy once tested fighter jets for "Top Gun" pilots.
The primary attraction, certainly the biggest, would be the ski mountain. There also would be an indoor water park, a convention center and hotel, a winery, equestrian trails, campgrounds, an artificial lake and a spa surrounded by botanical gardens.
Conservationists predict terrible traffic jams through the most sensitive part of the island's ecosystem, causing air and water pollution and endangering wildlife.
"Mega-development ... could turn rural Calverton into modern-day Orlando," the Long Island Pine Barrens Society said in a statement.
But Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy argued that the site, because it once housed a defense contractor, is ideal for redevelopment.
"It takes the pressure off of trying to develop and pave over existing open space in other parts of the county," he said.
It's been a decade since the Navy gave the town of Riverhead, some 75 miles east of New York City, about 6,000 acres of property once used by Northrop Grumman Corp. to test F-14s and other aircraft.
3,000 acres already a preserve
Half of the land has already been set aside as a preserve; the rest is designated for development. One industrial park has already been built.
Now, a group of investors including Scottish home builders Baldragon Homes Ltd. and real estate developers Bayrock Group LLC have signed a $163 million deal with the town to develop the remaining 750 acres into what they call Riverhead Resorts.
Mitch Pally, an attorney for the proposed resort, tries to emphasize the project's diversity but concedes most of the questions he is asked concern the ski dome.
"Americans are very parochial," he said. "If we don't have one in this country, we assume they don't exist. There are over 50 of them operating in the world today."
From Australia to Scotland to Dubai, ski enthusiasts have been schussing down indoor ski resorts for years.
In the United States, an indoor slope is scheduled to open later this year in the New Jersey Meadowlands, and other projects are in the works in Las Vegas, outside Atlanta and elsewhere.
The Long Island project is at the confluence of two popular tourist destinations — the south shore Hamptons and the north shore wine region — that draw big crowds in summer. The developers want year-round business.
"This has to be a 365-day resort or we're not making money," Pally said. "We have to provide basically the same guest experience in January that we do in July."
Marketing surveys found that 40 million people live within a six-hour drive of the site, said Pally, who has designs on the international traveler as well.
"There are 50 million visitors who go to New York City every year," Pally said. "As I always say, (Mayor Michael Bloomberg is) getting them from Germany to New York. All I got to do is get them from New York to Riverhead."
Aquifer, rare species are obstacles
First, developers need at least 18 regulatory approvals from various government agencies, many of which focus on environmental concerns. That's where opponents are lining up to fight.
The property is part of the Pine Barrens of Long Island, 100,000 acres of relatively undeveloped land sitting atop an aquifer system that is the sole natural source of drinking water for the island's nearly 3 million residents. Because of its critical ecological role, state and local laws limit the type and scope of development in the region.
Since April, all building has been on hold after the state Department of Environmental Conservation confirmed the presence of two rare species, the short-eared owl and the eastern tiger salamander.
Both are protected under state conservation law. Once a survey of the property to determine the extent of the animals' presence is completed, the project may require additional permits before it can proceed, DEC spokeswoman Maureen Wren said. She could not estimate how long the process might take.
Jennifer Skillbred of the Coalition for Open Space at Epcal, which represents 24 groups opposed to the project, said a comprehensive environmental review should be done for the entire site.
"Our view is that last study was done 10 years ago and is outdated," she said. "It doesn't include the endangered birds."
Riverhead Town Supervisor Phil Cardinale said the property was rezoned for development a decade ago.
Although the developers are not expected to formally close on the property until 2010, when construction would start, Cardinale said Riverhead Resorts has already made a $2 million nonrefundable payment and a second is due on July 15.
Pally said it could take 10 years for the entire project to be completed, though developers hope to open portions of it in early 2013.
They estimate the project will yield $50 million in property tax payments annually and create 3,000 to 4,000 permanent full-time jobs.