Monday, June 26, 2006

Walk Before You Sprawl

From The Op Ed Pages Of The New York Times

Bigger, but Not Better

By Richard Amper and Richard Johannesen

LONG ISLAND is the national model of poor land use. All of America has learned from our mistakes — except, apparently, us.

Today, Long Island developers continue to pursue their usual agenda of sprawl, as evidenced by the monstrosities they are building on former farms in Brookhaven and Riverhead — bigger and bigger houses in more and more remote areas. It's an agenda that serves developers' interests while threatening Long Island's future.

Sprawl is hurting the region's agriculture, endangering animal habitats and gobbling up wetlands and woodlands. For example, part of the proposed Heritage Square project, which calls for the construction of 408 units on about 52 acres in East Moriches, is on land in the Pine Barrens, a state nature preserve. Sewage discharges resulting from all this development will contaminate drinking water. And with residents living further and further from workplaces and shopping, the island's already intolerable traffic will only increase, polluting the air.

Long Island's No. 1 industry is tourism, and visitors aren't coming to the island to visit and take photographs of new houses and subdivisions. They're interested in sunning themselves on our beaches, tasting our local wines and hiking along the trails at our federal and state wildlife preserves. But if sprawl continues, there will be none of this to enjoy.

Moreover, sprawl makes housing unaffordable to seniors and younger workers. With the average house selling for $350,000 to $400,000, 18- to 34-year-olds are leaving the region at a rate five times the national average. The resulting brain drain is casting a giant shadow over the regional economy. Businesses can't fill the jobs we desperately need.

Development also increases the cost of government services like schools, roads and police protection. The result: taxes two-and-a-half times the national average.

Developers are about to put Long Island out of business. What's more, our politicians are helping them do it.

Long Island's future hinges on two needs: open space and affordable housing. These are entirely compatible. Smart growth means building houses and apartments in our downtowns and villages in mixed-use communities near public transportation. Planners agree on this, and polls show the public supports it.

Developers profess to support affordable housing, but seldom do they build any. They make too much money building unaffordable housing. According to Lee Koppelman, director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, only 3,000 to 5,000 of Long Island's million or so houses would be considered affordable by standard measures.

Developers on Long Island have fought zoning requirements that require new subdivisions to include some affordable housing. In Brookhaven, they blocked a ballot proposal for a community preservation fund, in which a 2 percent real estate transfer tax on expensive houses is used to buy open land; such taxes have saved more than 5,000 acres on the East End.

And they lobbied the Suffolk County Legislature for a referendum that allows construction elsewhere every time a parcel of land is preserved, saying that this would promote affordable housing. Two years later, not one affordable house has resulted from the passage of the referendum, even as many of the politicians who supported it received big campaign contributions from developers.

This situation, in which politicians are more responsive to developers than to the public, needs to end. Starting this summer, our group will begin issuing report cards on politicians' records on preservation, sprawl and affordable housing. These report cards will identify the elected officials who most consistently place the developers' agenda ahead of public needs.

But more can be done. Long Islanders should demand that their local officials require new subdivisions to include 20 percent affordable housing for families making 80 percent or less of the average income in their town. They should oppose high-density development unless it's downtown, near existing roads and sewers. And they should oppose new development projects on open space and farmland.

After 50 years of poor land use, time is running out for our region. There are only 70,000 acres left today that are not already committed to development or preservation; by 2015, there will be none. If we don't change now, one of the nation's first mature suburbs will become the nation's first dead suburb.

Richard Amper is the treasurer and Richard Johannesen is the chairman of the Long Island Environmental Voters Forum, a nonprofit environmental group.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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Time may have already run out for Nassau County, where images of the land mass taken from space show various shades of gray, and little if any green. Open space is virtually non-existent, and, after decades of zoning and land use mis-steps and giveaways to developers and politically connected special interests, sprawl is almost the least of the county's worries.

The Heritage Square development, referenced in the Times' Op Ed piece, pales by comparison to the ongoing redevelopment at and about the old Roosevelt Raceway site, which boasts both unaffordable rental units and mid to upper six figure housing for the 55 and over set.

If the folks in Suffolk want to see what rampant overdevelopment looks like -- and what that county faces over the next decade if the developers are left unchecked -- they need venture no further than that confluence of the Town of Hempstead's "resource recovery" plant, the Meadowbrook Parkway, and a host of big box stores, from Target to The Source Mall. All of this -- and more to come -- without even crossing the Turnpike to view plans for the redevelopment of the Coliseum and environs.

The New Suburbia, as the plan for Nassau County has been dubbed by its chief executive, Tom Suozzi, needs much more than platitudes and the construction of massive building projects that devour dwindling resources and land, and continue to erode what little quality of life remains in America's oldest suburb.

We need to be smarter than those who, for years, have uttered the words "smart growth," but, when push came to shove, gave us the same old "dumbed down" haphazard development that has turned Nassau from a once greenfield into a now virtual brownfield.

There may still be pine barrens to save in Suffolk. For Nassau, however, unless we act swiftly and prudently to reclaim both vision and landscape, the county will simply be barren -- and not only of greenery!

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