Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Best Laid Plans

End Of An Era At Long Island Regional Planning Board

After some forty years at the helm of a ship that more often listed while adrift in a sea of bureaucratic mayhem than it smoothly sailed the charted course, Lee Koppelman, Executive Director of the sometimes troubled Long Island Regional Planning Board, has retired.

New York, including much of Long Island, had it's Master Builder in Robert Moses, while Long Island uniquely held claim to it's Master Planner, Lee Koppelman. Both had their share of critics and detractors, as well as their hard-core supporters. Both were men of grand vision, whose foresight, in the case of Moses, sometimes failed to mesh with -- or so much as take into consideration -- the realities of an evolving community, and, in the case of Koppelman, regularly failed to win the embrace of entrenched political operatives.

Stymied by the stranglehold of town zoning boards and small-minded technocrats, and holding little if any sway over either, the Long Island Regional Planning Board, along with many of Professor Koppelman's best laid plans, floundered.

There were some successes en route, such as the creation of the Pine Barrens preserve. In Suffolk, Koppelman championed the preservation of open space. In Nassau County, his proposals, including pleas to build affordable housing and hopes of developing a light rail system, were mostly ignored.

Failures, and there were a few, including the haphazard development of the Route 110 corridor, were largely the product of institutional malaise and governmental arrogance rather than Dr. Koppelman's own perceived shortcomings.

Unlike Moses, who wielded great power and commanded the ability to raise large sums of money for his pet projects, all Lee Koppelman could do was to offer what he considered as prudent advice, too much of it, unfortunately, falling upon deaf ears at both county and local levels.

Among, Dr. Koppelman's ideas, first advanced during the 1960s, and incorporated into the 1970 "Comprehensive Plan for 1985" were:

Transportation: Expand the highway network, build two bridges over Long Island Sound, revamp the Long Island Rail Road and establish an integrated bicounty bus system.

Housing: Build 400,000 new units by 1985, including 128,500 rental apartments for residents under 25 and over 65.

Land use: Cluster construction to preserve open land, acquire parkland, limit development in North Shore estate areas and on the East End, and preserve at least 30,000 acres of farmland.

Taxes: Create countywide taxing districts to pay for schools and impose county sales taxes to prevent an anticipated doubling of the average Long Island homeowner's tax bill in 15 years to pay for increased public services.

They weren't listening then, and, lip service to "smart growth," "downtown revitalization" and school and special district "consolidation" aside, for the most part, those who rule the roost over regional and community-based plans are not listening still.

Today, there is a call, chiefly by the Island's two County Executives, to strengthen the Regional Planning Board. James Larocca, the Board's Chairman, and the newly appointed Board members, have the opportunity to seize upon the vision of Messrs. Levy and Suozzi and search out a successor to Dr. Koppelman who would boldly go where no planner dared -- or was permitted -- to go before.

Long Island stands at the crossroads in it's course as America's first suburb. Property taxes spiraling ever-upward. Housing out of reach to all but the extremely wealthy. The commercial base fleeing. Traffic at a standstill. The water below is tainted. The air above, stagnant. From taxes to transportation, there appears to be little in the way of a plan, master or otherwise.

Lee Koppelman wanted Long Island to think and act like the region it is. He would have delighted as well, we believe, had we acted more locally on the community front to create neighborhoods that felt more like, well, neighborhoods, rather than the strip malls and sprawling brownfields that have all but destroyed that sense of community the neighborhood was intended to promote.

Sometimes, neighborhoods just happen. The best of them develop and thrive naturally, without the intervention of either master planners or master builders. At other times, community needs the boost that only a regional plan -- one that takes into account the vitality of the neighborhood -- can provide.

Now is the time for the Long Island Regional Planning Board to take the helm again and, with vision, leadership, and a dash of tenacity, to ply Long Island's waters with a full head of steam. It is also time for Long Island's 2 counties, 13 towns, 2 cities, and 93 villages (and we haven't begun to include in the count Long Island's 126 school disticts and 700 some-odd "special" districts) to board the ship and begin to row together in the same direction at the same time.

As Lee Koppelman said some forty years ago, "We can't afford to wait!"

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