Rich Murdocco

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Here’s How We Can Save the Future of Long Island

Long Island smart growth

It used to be that local governments provided some semblance of logic behind development decisions.

In Suffolk County, planners worked with elected officials to protect vast swaths of open spaces and farmland on the East End of Long Island, with the goal of fostering environmental stewardship. Meanwhile, Nassau County wasn’t so lucky—before the county could wrap their municipal heads around the concepts Suffolk had embraced, developers had essentially subdivided the land from Elmont to Woodbury.

Despite the forethought (or lack thereof from Nassau), the region still regularly grapples with the issues of over-development, traffic, taxes, toxic water. Even worse, our current approaches to development are doing little to address them moving forward. With some work, we can begin to address these longstanding gripes that every Long Islander has, while at the same time making this region more productive and environmentally sustainable.

These issues have plagued Long Island since the days when William Levitt first built his houses on the potato fields that served as the post-war builder’s blank canvas. Since then, hundreds of other Levitt-like builders have sought to make their mark on Long Island’s landscape—and all too often, local governments gave them unfettered flexibility regarding where and how much they could build. Sensitive wetlands were filled in, homes constructed with little regard to how roads would handle the traffic. These decisions helped shape the Long Island we know today, and solidified some of the best and worst aspects of living in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Today, these woes are amplified, thanks to those fast and loose years of selective adherence to zoning standards that gave piecemeal a variance here or an exception there. Now, the model has evolved. Instead of approving single-family home developments, multifamily mixed-use hubs that supposedly reflect smart growth principles get the nod. Developers tout their projects as “walkable” and “transit-oriented,” but do next to nothing to ensure that their creations actually are. Local government officials are just as guilty, because they take these claims at face value with little follow-up on how the projects will fulfill their many promises.

Being next to a train station is one thing, but ensuring that the people nearby are actually taking that train every day is another.

Groups such as the Rauch Foundation, which calls for new forms of housing growth, aren’t wrong though. Long Island’s housing variety has been too vested in the single-family model. And it’s well known that Long Island does lag behind when it comes to the lack of diversity of housing choices. The advocates stumble, though, when they don’t acknowledge that in some areas of the Island this single-family model was a necessity—due to either environmental or infrastructural limitations.

Today, this mindset must evolve further. Not every downtown is destined to become the next Mineola, nor is every downtown able to. It’s critical that our region’s growth be placed where it will make the most impact. Development must occur near train stations, as Rauch frequently states, but builders and local governments need to ensure that these train stations are actually used by community residents. A transit-oriented development in Babylon would see more LIRR ridership than, say, a similar effort in downtown Moriches.

This distinction is what Long Island’s development community and smart growth advocates have apparently been missing: mixed-use, smart growth only thrives if high-paying jobs and neighborhood services are plentiful and accessible via public transit.

Every day, Long Islanders endure the impacts of bad developmental policy as they drive on their local roads, pay their bills, and drink their tap water. Long Island needs to foster new avenues of economic growth, and community advocates need to understand that property owners have a right to build as allowed under zoning codes. Economics is a crucial piece of the planning puzzle, but the drive to develop for dollars needs to be offset with environmental and social consideration. If this balance can be achieved, our region can finally address our longstanding problems.

Making this balance happen will require a much larger departure from longstanding cronyism. Industry insiders know their trade, of course, so they must be included in the process, but they must not drive it as they have for all too long. After all, our future is at stake—and they all know it.

Empowered by the populist use of social media, local civic groups should engage with policymakers and developers to hash out a realistic vision for their communities. For decades, developers have dominated the narrative, yet civic groups have done themselves no favors, thanks to the rigid NIMBY mindset that ignores the region’s pressing fiscal and social needs.

In an area where home rule is strongly engrained in the minds of elected officials and the public, we must respect the policymaking process and ensure that all involved adhere to the same rules and regulations. Standardization of Long Island’s patchwork land use strategies would go a long way in bringing about cohesive and productive change.

Development that is grounded in the principle of addressing legitimate community needs is not only a smart investment, it’s proven to be a model that works here time and time again.

With realistic expectations, less political rewards, standardized application of land use controls and detached analysis, we can begin to not only grow again, but tackle some of the Island’s longstanding woes.

Rich Murdocco writes about Long Island’s land use and real estate development issues. He received his Master’s in Public Policy at Stony Brook University, where he studied regional planning under Dr. Lee Koppelman, Long Island’s esteemed master planner. More of his views can be found on TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

Hicksville Hopes for a Redo, But Politics Could Still Get in The Way

Hicksville may be getting a big makeover (Long Island Press/Rashed Mian)

The gymnasium was packed at Hicksville High School last month when a new plan to rezone the central business district and create a transit-oriented hub was presented. With multi-family housing, office space and retail included, the proposal was pretty straightforward, but sizeable challenges loom ahead, as they always do with something as ambitious as this design.

Will Hicksville finally reinvent itself this time? Or will this effort also end up gathering dust on a shelf like so many other previous attempts to revitalize this area?

Elected officials from the Town of Oyster Bay were on hand as were staffers from Vision Long Island, a nonprofit group that specializes in “grass-roots-style” community planning, which had helped to craft the original Hicksville Downtown Revitalization Action Plan four years ago with input from civic groups and local businesses. One of the goals of the rezoning is to allow 500 multifamily housing units and high-rise offices to be built around the LIRR’s Hicksville station, which is about to undergo a $121 million makeover.

Hicksville’s total area slated for transformation is 162 acres. The proposed zoning changes would span two distinct districts. The first, designated CB1, is what the Hauppauge-based Cashin Spinelli & Ferretti, LLC, planning consultants call a “traditional downtown district,” which would include mixed-use development of storefronts and rental housing. The second, CB2, would be a “transit-district” for hospitals, large offices and the like, with the intention of creating a new regional employment hub. The planners propose raising the maximum allowable density from 16 units per acre to 30 units.

But given the scandals that have rocked the Town of Oyster Bay recently, how confident can we be that these public officials can pull off a project of this size? Consider the threat of municipal bankruptcy from the town’s junk bond status, reports of insider deals corrupting the town’s planning department, and the arrest of Supervisor John Venditto in October on federal charges of receiving “bribes and kickbacks” from a local businessman who is also accused of giving the wife of Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano a “no-show job.” The future of Oyster Bay looks murky indeed.

During the presentation, Vision Long Island’s Executive Director Eric Alexander calmly dealt with community concerns about the project’s impact on traffic, taxes and density. To this group, ensuring local control is the key to successful development. Alexander has honed their transit-oriented approach in incorporated villages across the Island, scoring wins in Patchogue, Mineola and Farmingdale.

But Hicksville is a rare example of Vision Long Island tackling an unincorporated hamlet, where a larger township has power over land-use decisions. So far, the Town of Oyster Bay is not only on board but actively engaged and they’re taking residents’ preferences into full consideration, especially their concerns that the height of new buildings be capped at four stories.

Town Councilwoman Rebecca Alesia, a Republican committee leader, has supported revitalization efforts in this area since taking office in 2010. She believes the time is right, citing the Long Island Rail Road’s third track project on the mainline in Nassau, the improvements proposed for the Broadway Mall near the Hicksville train station and the pending redevelopment of the Sears’ property nearby on North Broadway that could bring hundreds of housing units and new retail stores.

“A lot has to do with the climate with other things going on the area,” Alesia told the Press. “Once you get the momentum, you want the wind on your back.”

Last year, Alesia ran for re-election on a platform that promised to uphold the township’s commitment to suburbia.

“Like with any rezoning, people can have a hard time with change,” she said at the recent presentation. “It’s important to educate how this process will work, and how it will balance our suburban lifestyle.”

Noting community concerns about traffic congestion and the lack of parking, she said that the third track project may include 950 additional spaces and that peak-hour auto usage should not rise too much from the proposed residential units. And she pointed out that efforts are already underway with the state Department of Transportation to address the daily commuter headaches of Routes 106 and 107 where some 58,000 vehicles converge.

She didn’t think the town’s political turmoil would hinder the Hicksville project.

“The town has a pretty good track record with following community preferences,” she said, citing the pending mixed-use redevelopment at the long-vacant Cerro Wire property which is finally underway. “Government is a lot more than one or two individuals.”

While Vision Long Island, the Town of Oyster Bay and the planning consultants keep plugging away, it’s important all involved avoid the common pitfalls typically associated with this type of transit-oriented growth. Namely, the prices of any new residential development in Hicksville should stay in sync with the region’s market needs, not drive profits for the real estate development community. After all, if millennials can’t afford the rent, why bother?

Although supporters of this project argue that transit-oriented growth reduces automobile traffic, past performance finds that claim to be a bit shaky. Often, transit-oriented developers insist that it won’t be an issue, but that’s simply not the case given commuter trends in Nassau and Suffolk counties. It’s imperative for both Oyster Bay and Vision Long Island to push their developer partners to incentivize transit usage for residents beyond mere encouragement. Subsidies, fare, or rent reduction programs would go a long way toward alleviating some of the traffic impacts these projects will eventually generate.

Thanks to Hicksville’s being an actual transit hub that residents not only use—reportedly 14,000 LIRR riders a day get on board there—but want to use more, the Town of Oyster Bay has the opportunity to restore confidence in government and create a new regional epicenter. With data-driven planning, planners, politicians and builders might actually succeed – but the vultures of the real estate industry are already circling overhead, waiting for this ambitious project to fail.

Can Hicksville finally realize its potential? Time will tell.

Rich Murdocco writes about Long Island’s land use and real estate development issues. He received his Master’s in Public Policy at Stony Brook University, where he studied regional planning under Dr. Lee Koppelman, Long Island’s esteemed master planner. More of his views can be found on TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

Developers Go Out on Limb to Coin New Phrase to Solve Suburban Woes

Tritec Redevelopment Patchogue
An artist's rendering of the Tritec Redevelopment in Patchogue, one of Long Island's so-called "cool downtowns" where developers have built affordable, transit-oriented housing (Photo courtesy of Village of Patchogue).

Is Long Island’s suburban model a thing of the past? That could be the case if you can believe the latest look at demographic trends shaping real estate development and land use.

The new report was produced by John Burns Real Estate Consulting LLC for the Urban Land Institute Terwilliger Center for Housing, a not-for-profit industry-funded research organization based in Washington, D.C., which used input from the institute’s Residential Neighborhood Development Council, whose members include powerful realtors and investors across the country.

Dubbed “Demographic Strategies For Real Estate,” the report claims that its analysis has “wide-ranging implications for every discipline of the real estate community,” but it basically echoes what many developers have already been saying in recent years. As Curbed’s coverage puts it: “Powered by social and demographic shifts involving young workers, immigrants, working women and retirees, suburbs will get denser, more diverse and more urban.”

These aren’t bad trends by any means, but how realistic is it to say that radical shifts will occur in well-established areas like Long Island, where the landscape is confined by water on all sides as well as beneath our feet in the sole-source aquifers that supply our region’s drinking water?

Citing that homeownership rates have dropped since their pre-recession peak of 67.7 percent, the study estimates it will decline further to 60.8 percent by 2025. It forecasts that renters will comprise 7.3 million out of the 12.5 million new households nationwide. This figure is almost double the 7 million households created in the past 10 years, assuming, as the report puts it, that there will be an “increase in multi-generational adult households and [that] will create huge opportunities.”

It’s an interesting estimate. But it doesn’t carry much weight due to the large premises that drive the researchers’ predictions. The report highlights changes to buyers’ housing preferences, but some people will always prefer the single-family, automobile-centric suburbs we know today.

The study itself, which is generating buzz online, makes many assumptions: the economy will be healthy; immigration will continue at high levels; Medicare, Social Security and the like won’t be cut; housing prices will remain relatively stable; a fixed rate 30-year mortgage won’t rise above 6 percent; and college costs won’t increase unreasonably and other borrowing/spending trends will be favorable.

The report also claims that “increased regulation and supply constraints around the country will continue to limit supply” of housing. But apparently, not too much, because the study’s authors predict that during the next 10 years, 79 percent of household growth will occur in suburban areas. They say that urban and rural areas will grow slowly. Of course, some areas, like LI, need strong regulations when it comes to land usage to protect our drinking water.

Putting all these complex factors together makes a shaky foundation to base substantive recommendations upon—especially if they involve a fundamental re-invention of suburbia. Here, the consultants have embarked on new ground. They’ve rebranded their version, calling it Surban™, their trademarked term that they define as “bringing the best of urban living to a more affordable suburban environment.”

The concept takes note of the increasing number of millennials and baby boomers who love the urban lifestyle, want to be close to entertainment, restaurants and transportation, but typically can only afford housing in the suburbs. And so, in response, new developments are being established in these Surban™ locations throughout the U.S.

If it sounds like real estate industry jargon, that’s because it is. It’s the new, sleeker version of the term “Smart Growth.” The study’s authors helpfully supply examples of Surban™ communities that are all high-density, mixed-use developments, exemplifying many of the principles of the smart growth movement, including housing diversity and integrated retail components.

Now, the new report itself isn’t bad. It simply paints a rosy picture that this particular approach to development will help adapt older suburban areas to the changes to come. But it doesn’t propose much policy. In the planning world, while it’s important to know where we are at the present, it’s critical to outline where we should go—and how best to get there.

This is where reports like this typically fall short. How will these new developments fit into an old, established environment where the residents very much prefer the status quo, for better or worse?

Long Islanders should be wary of any slick presentation that promises an all-in-one answer to suburbia’s woes, because it’s like the huckster Lyle Lanley on The Simpsons selling Springfield a monorail, a parody of “Professor” Harold Hill, who conned River City in The Music Man. It’s all show, with very little substance.

A solution to economic stagnation, inflated rents and high costs of housing doesn’t exist. At the end of the day, whether you call it smart growth, transit-oriented development, or Surban™ salvation, no matter how it is packaged, high-density residential and mixed-use projects cannot simply erase zoning regulations and automobile-centric environments and commuter patterns that have come to define America’s suburbs. They can’t eliminate the limitations of infrastructure and the environment or change the expectations of residents about what they would like the communities they call home to be.

The vested interests and real estate developers who helped produce this report should create realistic projects that don’t ask the sun, the moon and the stars of local people and their municipal government. Instead, they should concentrate on community-oriented planning efforts that are data-driven and responsive to neighborhood needs.

There is nothing wrong with blending the best of urban and suburban worlds. But do it where it really belongs.

Main Art: An artist’s rendering of the Tritec Redevelopment in Patchogue, one of Long Island’s so-called “cool downtowns” where developers have built affordable, transit-oriented housing (Photo courtesy of Village of Patchogue).

Rich Murdocco writes about Long Island’s land use and real estate development issues. He received his Master’s in Public Policy at Stony Brook University, where he studied regional planning under Dr. Lee Koppelman, Long Island’s esteemed master planner. More of his views can be found on TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

White House Right to Tell Local Zoning Boards to Be Constructive

In the heated debate about whether or not local zoning codes are choking us, New Age urbanists who propose environmentally friendly dense developments have new fuel for the fire now that the Obama administration is chiming in.

“In more and more regions across the country, local and neighborhood leaders have said yes in our backyard,” said the White House in a recent policy release. “We need to break down the rules that stand in the way of building new housing.” Accompanying the presentation was a toolkit to spell out the White House’s policy proscription, as reported in Politico.

The initiative is intended to address the “local barriers to housing development” such as zoning, land-use regulations and lengthy development approval processes that have restricted the housing market’s ability to respond to growing demand. The obstacles are thereby “jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers’ access to high-wage labor markets and stifling GDP growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions.”

While developers and their allies may be drooling at the prospect of relaxed zoning standards, Long Island residents who fear the worst should take comfort in the fact that the federal government can only comment about land use. It can’t impose.

Here’s the thing though: The White House isn’t wrong. Local zoning can be restrictive—and often on LI that’s by design. It’s called home rule.

Many people, especially those who subscribe to the theory that we must build our way out of our economic decline, conveniently forget that the Island’s zoning is philosophically rooted in groundwater protection. By reducing densities in unsewered areas, we’re preventing toxic wastewater from polluting our aquifers, the sole source of our drinking water.

Environmental necessity aside, our region simply cannot handle additional density unless something changes. But the White House is right, we do need more housing, whether we care to admit it or not.

Metropolitan areas such as San Francisco and New York City are seeing their blockbuster economic gains stymied by the lack of affordable housing options. As urban areas become more economically polarized and in some cases, just wealthier, the crucial middle class is left floundering for a foothold.

Think about the sky-rocketing explosion of real estate prices in the outer borough areas of New York City that were traditionally havens for the less well-off and blue collar workers. Where do these people go now?

The White House’s “toolkit” prescribes more density, faster permitting and fewer restrictions for developers with regard to parking and accessory dwelling units such as an apartment over a garage, for example. These recommendations are standard fare at this point, but to have them come from the federal government lends them a weight that has been previously unseen in the land use discussion.

The concern is that the “tool kit” doesn’t factor in the reality of suburban living. In other words, only a relatively small percentage of suburban residents actually use mass transit. So allowing developers to get away with not providing adequate parking for the new tenants in their projects is not a good idea. Unless the developers offer their tenants some incentive to ditch their cars, the end result will be higher density with fewer places to park.

The recommendations often made by developers and the vested interests in the building trade deny the fact that suburbia simply isn’t ready for higher density and all of the impacts it brings.

The White House’s entry into the argument about local zoning is unprecedented, according to Dr. Lee Koppelman, who served 28 years as the first Suffolk County Planner and 41 years as the regional planner for Nassau and Suffolk, and has been the executive director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies at Stony Brook University.

“NIMBYism isn’t the entire problem,” the veteran planner told the Press. “The White House is ignoring the relationship between community and environmental planning.”

In his career, Koppelman has supported balanced growth in environmentally appropriate areas but he said that ignoring the consequences of increasing density can be irresponsible.

“It sounds to me like the White House is touting for the real estate lobby,” Koppelman said. “Do the suburbs have the infrastructure to support growth? If not, will the federal government provide the money to build it?”

Answering that question is key. We need more affordable housing, but before we loosen zoning laws and other restrictions, our policymakers, builders and residents must work together to ensure that the suburban environment can handle it.

Growth should occur in the areas that are truly ready—where “walkable neighborhoods” can truly be considered walkable thanks to good jobs, adequate neighborhood services, other community amenities and nearby transit connections. Rents have been skyrocketing in urban areas like New York and San Francisco, and they need to be reined in. A frank, honest discussion must be had at all levels of governance to understand why, exactly, prices are escalating so rapidly.

Gentrification may make areas that were considered “less-desirable” worthy of investment in real estate circles, but the price we all pay is accelerated displacement of the lower and middle classes. Gentrifying neighborhoods don’t solve issues of poverty or affordability, but merely push those impacted aside. We must find a way to create attractive neighborhoods without driving up prices and forcing residents out.

Here policymakers must seriously consider taking unprecedented measures to attack the high cost of living on Long Island. Local school districts—the principal driver of rising property taxes in Nassau and Suffolk counties—should have their administrative models examined. Consolidation, a concept that has been a political non-starter in the past, should be considered in areas where it makes sense, such as within smaller school districts on the East End, or struggling districts in western Suffolk and Nassau. Eliminating the region’s patchwork quilt of local special taxing districts should also be explored, because it would be a small but meaningful step in the right direction.

But it’s critical that these efforts aren’t an excuse to give away the farm (both literally and figuratively) to developers and their enablers. Growing too rapidly can poison our environment. We’re still struggling to overcome the consequences of the rapid suburban expansion LI went through after World War II.

Good land use policy is all about achieving balance. The White House is correct to assert itself because the suburbs, ours in particular, aren’t working as effectively as they should to address these economic problems. Young families in our area shouldn’t have to look elsewhere for decent housing and jobs. But we must be smart about how we go about tinkering with the suburban model.

Calling for a wholesale increase in density, as the White House proposes, wouldn’t be right, either. Growth and environmental sustainability must be taken into consideration because what we don’t need is a new kind of sprawl.

Rich Murdocco writes about Long Island’s land use and real estate development issues. He received his Master’s in Public Policy at Stony Brook University, where he studied regional planning under Dr. Lee Koppelman, Long Island’s esteemed master planner. More of his views can be found on TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

LIRR: Hicksville & Jamaica Hubs to Get Multi-Million Dollar Makeover

Long Island’s commuters can expect major modernization efforts at both the Long Island Rail Road’s Hicksville and Jamaica stations, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday.

According to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, work has begun on a $121 million initiative to rebuild and modernize the Hicksville station, considered by the agency to be the busiest train station on Long Island. In addition, the LIRR has awarded a $64.9 million contract to create a new platform and tracks at the Jamaica station, the LIRR’s central hub and main transfer point for the railroad.

In Hicksville, the upgrades to the 55-year-old station will include Wi-Fi throughout the station, plus USB charging stations inside an enhanced glass-enclosed waiting room. New platforms will be outfitted with improved lighting and a translucent canopy roof, and aging stairways, escalators, elevators will be improved.

The railroad is also investing in a video security system, audio and digital communications systems, and better signage. The renovated station will also include new laminated art glass installations. Construction at Hicksville is slated to begin later this month, and the station work is expected to be completed by the spring of 2018.

“Revamping these two heavily trafficked transportation hubs will provide better, faster and more reliable train service for Long Island Rail Road riders,” Gov. Cuomo said in a statement. “Time and time again, transportation investment has a ripple effect of progress and economic growth on the surrounding community.”

Long Island Rail Road renovation
Artist rendering of what a renovated Hicksville Long Island Rail Road station would look like.

The formal announcements on both projects were made at the Conference on Sustainable Development and Collaborative Governance held Wednesday afternoon at the Huntington Hilton.

The MTA also announced that the LIRR’s Jamaica station is slated for upgrades that seek to increase the hub’s capacity and usability.

The new platform and tracks at Jamaica station will allow the LIRR to more easily re-route trains, take tracks out of service, and support supplemental train service to and from Atlantic Terminal for customers attending games and events at the Barclays Center. The new platform will also feature glass-enclosed heated waiting areas, as well as Wi-Fi and USB charging stations for riders. In addition, the station will be adorned with brightly colored art glass installations on the station’s westerly bridge, and also on the stairs leading from the new station platform to the AirTrain mezzanine.

The rebuilt station at Hicksville and new platform at Jamaica, slated to open in 2019, are two in a series of the LIRR system-wide capacity improvement projects, which also include an uninterrupted second track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma, and a third track on the Main Line from Floral Park to Hicksville, as well as the East Side Access project to bring LIRR trains into Grand Central Terminal.

Once East Side Access is complete, the new platform at Jamaica station will help to enhance service between Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn and Jamaica Station, enabling shuttle trains to depart every 7½ minutes during rush hour and every 15 minutes during off-peak hours, providing a higher level of service than that available under current timetables, according to the MTA.

The projects are supported by the state’s $27 billion MTA Capital Program, according to the governor’s office.

Rich Murdocco writes about Long Island’s land use and real estate development issues. He received his Master’s in Public Policy at Stony Brook University, where he studied regional planning under Dr. Lee Koppelman, Long Island’s esteemed master planner. More of his views can be found on TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

Can Government Clean Up Funky Lake Ronkonkoma?

lake ronkonkoma
Swimming is often prohibited at Lake Ronkonkoma beach due to increased bacteria levels. It was closed twice in July. Last summer there was a blue-green algae bloom advisory in effect, as shown here. (Long Island Press photo)

The summers when 20th century celebrities such as Greta Garbo and Jackie Gleason frequented the beach resorts that hugged the shores of Lake Ronkonkoma are long gone. Now the pavilions have vanished, the shores are contaminated with trash, and the polluted water often poses a health threat. Twice in July swimming was banned because of high levels of bacteria.

Considering its present condition, it’s hard to imagine that Lake Ronkonkoma ever drew thousands of people. Today it’s earned a reputation as a symbol of environmental neglect because an assortment of municipalities are either unwilling or unable to cut through the bureaucratic tangle of red tape that surrounds Long Island’s largest freshwater body.

The policy failures resonate far beyond its shores. Between historic poor land-use decisions that placed unsewered homes around the lake leeching nitrogen into the water and unresolved municipal hand-wringing over how to best address the area’s economic blight, its ongoing plight serves as a microcosm of LI’s larger regional challenges.

will I be approved for a business loan

Thanks to the Island’s many layers of governance and a distinct lack of coordination among them, our environment suffers. Our wastewater woes continue unabated, traffic congestion goes unaddressed, and unwise development choices continue. Fragmentation is the enemy of regional cohesion and planning.

Recently Suffolk County Legis. Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset), whose legislative district includes Lake Ronkonkoma, explained the complex situation to CBS reporter Jennifer McLogan.

“The bottom of the lake is owned by the Town of Islip, and some of the shore,” Kennedy said. “The Town of Smithtown has a small portion, the Town of Brookhaven has a portion, and the County of Suffolk has a portion.”

This municipal mix has led to inaction—a concept all too familiar to Long Islanders—when it comes to dealing with the debris and pollution that plague the lake.

After featuring Lake Ronkonkoma in her upbeat historic retrospective, News 12 Long Island’s Danielle Campbell learned first-hand how the once charmed area of her youth had suffered after years of neglect.

“My grandparents lived a block from the lake for more than 30 years,” Campbell recently told the Press. “I always knew the lake was in trouble. When I saw the burnt-out book store crumbling down into the lake’s shoreline, I knew something had to change.”

Last September, the Book House, a book shop dating back to the early 1920s, burned to the ground after being shuttered for almost a decade. Its charred rubble spread from the shoreline into the water. According to Campbell, the county finally intends to address the issue this fall. But the question remains: Why did it take so long?

To Campbell, Lake Ronkonkoma occupies the intersection of public funding and bureaucratic indifference.

“Unfortunately, Lake Ronkonkoma is under the jurisdiction of four municipalities,” Campbell said. “Because of this, [the] responsibilities, goals and vision for the lake and its surrounding area are fragmented and unclear.”

As a result, this mostly working-class area has been neglected for far too long.

“It is hard to imagine other Suffolk County waterfront communities such as Stony Brook or Brightwaters facing a similar fate of dumped trash, piles of construction debris, broken glass, hypodermic needles and a water quality that at most times is deemed toxic,” she noted.

She may be onto something. The Setauket Mill Pond in Frank Melville Park was choked and clogged with invasive weeds until a dedicated effort got underway that involved the park’s trust foundation, local residents, the local civic organization, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Town of Brookhaven. Together, they took concrete steps to forge a plan and address the issue.

Meanwhile, Lake Ronkonkoma remains dirty and its beaches are strewn with litter. But this is a problem with a long history. Its water quality began deteriorating after World War II, when residences without sewers started multiplying around its shore.

Since all lakes and streams on Long Island are fed by groundwater, Lake Ronkonkoma’s low water table has caused trouble for its homeowners, whose houses shouldn’t have been built there in the first place—a fact that residents and their realtors still seem to be largely unaware of. It’s led to headaches for those who had to fill their basements with cement to prevent flooding and to leaky cesspools discharging nitrogen into the lake. Local woes have grown while official responses have stagnated.

In fact, the most actively involved branch of government in Lake Ronkonkoma seems to be the Suffolk Health Department, which is constantly banning swimming due to elevated bacteria levels after every heavy rainfall. A quick search on Google shows just how badly the water quality degrades after these runoffs.

According to Campbell, an inter-municipal task force formed four years ago to address the lake’s woes, but they never met once. But change could finally be coming. Only recently, after residents came together and formed called the Lake Ronkonkoma Improvement Group, did this task force schedule a meeting for September.

The flurry of activity and publicity is welcome. Meanwhile, the DEC must join with Suffolk County to curb the runoff that chokes the lake with bacteria and curb the nitrogen loadings, and the lake’s municipal partners must coordinate their efforts to clean up the debris and improve the area’s quality of life.

Lake Ronkonkoma will never replace the Hamptons. But if our local governments can’t clean up a two-mile long lakefront, how can we trust them to protect our drinking water or preserve our open space?

Rich Murdocco writes about Long Island’s land use and real estate development issues. He received his Master’s in Public Policy at Stony Brook University, where he studied regional planning under Dr. Lee Koppelman, Long Island’s esteemed master planner. More of his views can be found on TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

Pushy Developers, Irrational Communities and Hypocritical Local Officials Put Long Island’s Future at Risk

Long Island

Some observers seem to think that the affordable housing situation here on Long Island is all doom and gloom because developers just can’t get the projects they want approved. But that’s a gross simplification with far-reaching consequences for our future.

For example, in a recent op-ed for the Long Island Press, John Kominicki, president of Innovate Long Island, an ambitious publication with a focus on start-ups and the next generation economy, claims that we need “many, many additional apartments—thousands a year instead of the few hundred being added today.” He says that it’s the only way to end the so-called exodus of our young people and those over 50. He calls for our local officials to “stare down the vocal minority” and “pass streamlined approvals, place limits on environmental squabbling and enact ‘as of right’ zoning.”

But given the state of our roads and our sole source aquifer, many planners and environmentalists believe that a few hundred units a year is all the region can handle at this point in time. Saying that additional supply will lower prices is a common assertion that oversimplifies the economics of housing and the cost of living on Long Island and ignores the fiscal realities of our region.

The idea of driving up our housing supply to solve LI’s affordability crisis is not only wrong, but it showcases larger problems associated with taking a developer-friendly “build, build, build!” approach.

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Time and again, the real estate industry argues that we need more growth, but without exactly substantiating how additional supply would be affordably priced without public subsidies, or how exactly our outdated rail, road and wastewater networks would accommodate their ambitious projects.

Besides, as we all can see, it’s not like the Island has turned into a dust bowl. There has indeed been growth in the housing supply. For perspective, municipal sources have estimated that Long Island added about 38,000 households between 2000 and 2015. How can somebody advocate for quadrupling that figure in the next 15 years without clearly defining how the additional units will be integrated into our existing communities?

To justify the push for more apartments, LI’s relatively slow multifamily growth is often cast as being essentially nonexistent between the years 1980 to 2000. But this simply isn’t true, either.

According to figures that show building permit activity in Suffolk County, multifamily development has continued, with approximately an additional 7,000 multifamily units added in 1980 to 1990, and another 5,000 units built between 1990 and 2000. Not exactly explosive, but it’s not insignificant.

So, let’s keep in mind that more than 74,000 homes were constructed between 1980 and 2000 in Suffolk County. From 2000 to 2010, Suffolk added an additional 16,000 multi-family housing units as well as 30,000 more single family homes. The bulk of this activity took place in the Town of Brookhaven and the East End because in Nassau and western Suffolk there’s not much room left for growth.

Perhaps what developers and other vested interests across the region should do is take less time blaming local zoning boards for their own failures, and focus more on why, exactly, some projects take so long to get approved.

Maybe it’s because builders often try to shoehorn projects into a place that the community neither wants nor needs, as was the case with Michigan-based developer Taubman’s long stalled and eventually failed mall by the Long Island Expressway in Syosset. Its replacement, Syosset Park, is supposedly designed to reflect resident and civic input. Thus far, this project has faced little resistance or NIMBY sentiment from neighbors nearby or municipal officials at the Town of Oyster Bay.

Maybe some projects are delayed because the developer hasn’t adequately explained to neighbors who stand to be impacted by their proposals why, exactly, the projects need to increase the number of homes or units to be built there compared to the density of the surrounding community. Considering Avalon Bay in Huntington, Serota Property’s Islip Pines in Holbrook, or Beechwood Home’s Country Pointe in Plainview, did each of these respective builders really justify the increase in residential yield, aside from “keeping our young professionals” in the area? They could have done more.

But developers aren’t wrong when they say the game can be rigged. In the Village of Hempstead, for example, Renaissance Downtown’s efforts to make a substantive $2.5 billion investment on 32 acres within the beleaguered municipality have come to a stand-still after the local Industrial Development Agency and village government couldn’t come to terms on the specifics of the project’s complex PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement. Across the Island, residents sue to delay projects time and time again. Sometimes these lawsuits are valid, sometimes they’re not, but this litigation adds to the project’s costs and extends its timeframes.

Sometimes, however, developers can be far from rational in their requests for zoning leniency.

A quick, but significant example of this disconnect between a developer’s expectation and reality can be found near the Elwood/Dix Hills border in Suffolk County. There, Great Neck-based developer Villadom is trying to convince local policymakers to amend the Town of Huntington’s comprehensive plan so it can build yet another giant shopping center along the Jericho Turnpike corridor. In short, a private entity (the developer) wants the Town (and the public) to change its pre-existing zoning, which was created with resident and professional input in a comprehensive manner. Why? For Villadom’s own gain.

That’s just one example, but variations occur in every township throughout our region. From Jerry Wolkoff’s Heartland Town Square needing to increase zoning to allow thousands of rentals on an environmentally-sensitive tract of land in the Town of Islip, to countless pockets of vacant property that are targeted to become dense senior housing, efforts are underfoot to upend local zoning laws. Whether it’s municipalities who don’t understand why that zoning restriction was enacted in the first place—or worse, don’t care—or it’s developers who look to play fast and loose with zoning rules so they can fatten their wallets and increase their profit margin, it’s a serious problem for our Island’s limited resources.

Since 2010, I’ve been writing to dispel myths of development and advocate instead for a cohesive, data-backed approach that is fueled by enlightened community input. Take a prominent example, the supposed “brain drain”. Builders used to try to capitalize on this alleged flight of the Island’s young population to justify their projects, but the notion has waned in importance as those in the industry realize it is no longer a compelling argument.

Before that, it was the claim that all growth was “smart growth,” even if the proposals in question could barely be considered transit-oriented because of their actual location and their real reliance on the automobile to get those future residents around. Together, these myths have formed a developer-driven narrative that must be put to the test.

Considering developers who are constantly trying to upend zoning restrictions, local governments that stick to the rules in one instance and ignore due process in another, and residents who at times can be far from rational, we end up with a toxic environment. And that benefits nobody.

Nothing substantive or good can come from this noxious cocktail, especially in the long run. Moving forward, we must sit down together at the table, honestly assess Long Island’s strengths and weaknesses, and craft an honest approach to solving our regional woes.

No amount of housing approved or built can replace good, old-fashioned honest planning.

Rich Murdocco writes about Long Island’s land use and real estate development issues. He received his Master’s in Public Policy at Stony Brook University, where he studied regional planning under Dr. Lee Koppelman, Long Island’s esteemed master planner. More of his views can be found on TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

Who Shall Pay to Save Long Island’s Drinking Water?

By now, Long Island’s elected officials and policymakers should know how best to protect our region’s precious drinking water. After all, they have half a century’s worth of studies to consult. They should understand the problem and what has to be done to solve it.

But apparently that’s not the question.

Since Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s recently proposed water fee is now as dead as the fish in the Peconic River, a legitimate concern rises from the murky, algae-clogged depths: How do we pay for water protection on Long Island?

residential moving guide

This latest ill-fated push for funds, an effort begun in April, was essentially dead on arrival. Suffolk reportedly wanted to create a referendum asking whether residents would support a water quality protection fee of $1 per 1,000 gallons of water used. Policymakers at the state level were supposedly ticked off they weren’t given enough notice about the proposal, while local critics worried about these funds being diverted for other, less green initiatives.

At the time, Paul Sabatino, former deputy Suffolk County executive, said the notion of taxing the water we drink is like taxing the air we breathe. On June 8, Bellone dropped the proposed water fee, saying that he’ll revisit the issue down the road. The rumor mill is saying that his water fee proposal may resurface during the next Suffolk legislative session.

Politicking aside, the environmental and policymaking community seems to be coalescing around sewers, advanced smaller-scale nitrogen removal systems and yet more sewers as the right approach for water protection. Where will the money come from?

The simple answer would be to hike taxes, allowing the region to pay for whatever upgrades are needed. But this is Long Island, where “No Taxes Welcome” should be engraved in stone on the Queens/Nassau border. Residents are right to be wary of additional taxes and fees.

They are already overburdened, especially compared to other parts of the state. And if the federal investigation of the corruption allegedly permeating our local and state governments is any indication, their hard-earned monies aren’t being well spent anyway.

So, how do we address the economics of implementing decades’ worth of strategic plans?

Innovation, it seems, is the key. Why not redirect some of the funds generated by red-light cameras to pay for infrastructure upgrades? Or, if it’s eventually passed by the Suffolk County Legislature, use some of the funds raised through plastic bag ban revenues?

Innovation has driven environmental policy in Suffolk before, fueling public efforts to preserve open space and protect groundwater through real estate fees and quarter penny sales taxes. Those are ideas county voters have repeatedly supported.

Elected officials and municipal bean counters should look for existing taxes and fees that offer ample opportunity to be redirected for a higher, greener purpose. In essence, use the green to pay for green policies.

On the plus side of the balance sheet, New York State got a financial windfall in the wake of the housing crisis, thanks to a huge legal settlement with the nation’s five largest mortgage banks that had been accused of abusive servicing and bad foreclosure practices before and during the Great Recession. New York had joined 48 other states in a federal lawsuit that led to a $25 billion agreement in 2014, reportedly netting around $4.5 billion as its share.

That being said, it wouldn’t be outlandish to redirect some of the money slated for a new Penn Station, Port Authority Bus Terminal or other transportation infrastructure upgrades to finance some vital wastewater treatment. Long Island needs them too, but investment in our transit systems will essentially be shortchanged if we cannot maximize our economic potential through smart residential development. If these settlement funds aren’t legally restricted, they can go a long way toward addressing some of the region’s green woes.

But our region’s environmental limitations, mostly stemming from the lack of sufficient wastewater treatment, prohibit Long Islanders from getting the most out of projects like the Long Island Rail Road double track, which is slated to run from Ronkonkoma and Farmingdale, or the East Side Access tunnel, which will connect LIRR commuters to Grand Central Terminal. These investments could yield true transit-oriented living near the LIRR train stations, but only if Long Island’s commuter and workforce habits shift. If impediments to growth could be properly balanced and reconciled in conjunction with these improvements through sound planning, then the state’s multi-billion-dollar investments may bear fruit sooner.

The reality is that additional growth is going to come to the Island in some shape or form. Whether those who oppose all growth anywhere and anyhow care to admit it, the fate of Nassau and Suffolk counties is tightly connected to the downstate region, driven by our economic powerhouse, New York City. Being so close to one of the largest and most successful metropolises in the country has its share of drawbacks, such as the need to stay competitive in the realms of housing and jobs. But it would be a mistake to stick your head in the sand and pretend that LI doesn’t have to contend with serious environmental issues.

Bob DeLuca, president and CEO of the Group for the East End, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Bridgehampton, makes a compelling case for some innovative funding mechanisms to help protect Long Island’s environment.

“At some point, there has to be an honest discussion about doing something, not writing more reports,” DeLuca said. To him, funding the necessary upgrades may require an expansion of the East End’s Community Preservation Fund, an additional tax added to real estate transactions in the five East End townships.

“The CPF model can be looked at in other towns that don’t have open space left to protect, but want to protect water quality,” DeLuca said. Currently, his group is working to extend the program to 2050, as well as expand the scope of the CPF fund so that it includes water quality initiatives.

Another idea being explored is creating water quality improvement districts in certain areas of the Island.

“Essentially, it’s like a business improvement district, but for water quality,” DeLuca explained.

Asked about the possibility that these new sewers would spur more unchecked development, DeLuca stressed that local municipalities retain control over land use.

“Much of the sewering is needed for areas that are already built,” he said, adding that the new sewers “don’t allow more growth if the municipalities don’t allow it. People don’t realize that local municipalities put density where the zoning is. They run the town, and put the zoning in place. Period.”

Nassau’s political and fiscal uncertainty, paired with the county’s serious lack of undeveloped open space, limits growth. But Suffolk’s environmental limitations also hamper our prosperity. We have to become innovative in how we fund the expansion of sewers, the replenishment of eelgrass in the southern bays and the reclamation of our coastline.

On Long Island, the economy and the environment aren’t mutually exclusive. Perhaps it’s time we think outside of the box to help both improve.

Long Island May Never Be Fully Prepared for the Next Bad Hurricane

Cars were buried in sand last October when Hurricane Sandy struck Long Beach. (Kevin Kane/Long Island Press)

The 2016 Atlantic hurricane season may have officially begun June 1, but there’s already been significant activity. Recently making waves, Colin was the third named tropical storm to churn up the coast before going out to sea, marking an early record.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted that 10 to 16 named storms will form this year, with four to eight of them becoming hurricanes. Four storms are expected to develop into a Category 3 hurricane or higher on the Saffir-Simpson scale, producing “devastating damage” from winds above 111 mph.

For Long Island, just one direct hit from a hurricane could cripple our region.

residential moving guide

It doesn’t even have to be a major storm to leave a trail of destruction in its wake. “Superstorm” Sandy wasn’t classified as Category 1 on the scale because the National Hurricane Center said it was more like a nor’easter than a hurricane. Knowing what Sandy did to LI, our benchmark for gauging the damage an actual hurricane would bring is truly concerning.

“Had Sandy remained a ‘warm-core’ system, it would have officially been a Category 1 hurricane,” explained Michael Leona, a professional freelance meteorologist. “This was a point of contention, especially considering hurricane coverage from insurance companies, and among meteorological purists.”

Calling Sandy a “superstorm” instead of a hurricane stirred some controversy, Leona noted, which has prompted the National Hurricane Center to change its policies regarding warnings it issues about these powerfully destructive weather systems.

“The media needed a fancy word to describe the storm, since it wasn’t really a hurricane or tropical storm when it approached and made landfall,” he added.

“Not calling Sandy a hurricane was an increasingly terrible error,” Craig Allen, chief meteorologist for WCBS since 1981, told me. “It still definitely had tropical characteristics, and to me, it was still equivalent to a category one hurricane,” Allen said, adding that the lack of hurricane label may have prevented the storm from being taken seriously.

But in some shape or form, the next big one is coming, without a doubt. The question is whether the Island is adequately prepared.

Before Long Island had to cope with “post-tropical cyclone” Sandy, its official classification, other hurricanes left their mark. Gloria, a Category 2 hurricane, made landfall in September 1985 and left almost 700,000 LILCO utility customers—two-thirds of its users—without power and caused about $100 million in damages. Unnamed nor-easters in ’91 and ’92 brought record high tides and serious flooding. And that’s just a sampling.

By far the benchmark for these events was set in ’38 when the “Long Island Express” crushed the Island. Estimated later to be a Category 3 (the Saffir-Simpson scale wasn’t created until the late ’60s), this huge storm brought lasting changes to the region’s erosion patterns. Over the decades since the Express struck, LI’s population has exploded, especially on the East End and the South Shore, with subdivisions replacing critical wetlands, increasing our vulnerability to storm surges and wave action.

This May, both Nassau and Suffolk county executives urged residents to take the 2016 hurricane season seriously. Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano insists that the region is better prepared since Sandy hit thanks to a “myriad of improvements” in communication technology and “asset acquisition,” while Suffolk County Executive Steve  Bellone wisely said that extreme weather events are “the new normal,” echoing past sentiments shared via The Foggiest Idea.

PSEG Long Island has been preparing for the next catastrophic storm, learning from the failings of LIPA after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, which left half a million people powerless, and Sandy. As local motorists have seen for themselves, PSEG LI has been hard at work trimming thousands of trees near power lines, and fortifying substations and conducting circuit upgrades. Policymakers have also overseen hard infrastructure improvements like fortified bulkheads in coastal areas, the strategic placement of new dunes in the City of Long Beach, for example, and property buyouts fueled by federal relief funding, which prohibits new homes built on certain parcels.

But all these claims of supposed readiness remain to be tested, since our region hasn’t been put seriously to the test since 2012.

These fortifications touted by public policymakers and utility operators should accelerate recovery efforts in a storm’s aftermath, but they do little to address the larger issues of the Island’s vulnerability to extreme weather. The coastal floodplain running south of Sunrise Highway from the Queens border to Rockville Centre and south of Montauk Highway to the end of the South Fork is home to some of Long Island’s densest population centers.

The detrimental impact of this rampant residential development—principally high levels of nitrogen from antiquated outfall pipes discharging wastewater and subdivisions without sewers—all but eliminated the presence of eelgrass in the Great South Bay, an essential natural barrier for keeping coastal sands from shifting. From hurricanes to nor’easters, homes and businesses have been left exposed, and yards and roads flooded. Every strong storm weather event is now essentially guaranteed to result in property loss—a sobering fact that hasn’t changed despite the best proclamations.

Our coastal development policies have long allowed water views and real estate pricing to trump sound planning. When Sandy hit, Long Islanders gained a new, darker perspective on their romanticized coastline—but stressful memories quickly fade, and developers are already salivating as they covet the waterfront parcels left empty by the superstorm and auctioned for pennies on the dollar. Many of those who watched their homes battered and destroyed by high tides and strong winds have moved to higher ground.

But surplus shoreline properties at the right price have attracted a new generation of LI families and buyers, thinking it won’t be so bad next time. Maybe it won’t—but given global warming, the odds are it will be worse.

This year’s hurricane season is predicted to be “normal or above normal,” as the meteorologist Leona noted, and that normalcy poses problem for a vulnerable region like ours.

“This year, a prediction of four to eight storms sounds about right,” agreed WCBS Chief Meteorologist Craig Allen, “but that doesn’t matter. It only takes one.”

Unwise development in the floodplain and poor coastal planning have put serious pressure on our infrastructure. Will Long Island ever be really ready?

“Since this is Mother Nature, nothing is by the book, and we could see an exception [this year],” added Leona. “But that’s what happens. You prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.”

But hope is not a plan.

Suffolk Shouldn’t Have to Chop Down Trees to Let Solar Panels Spring Up

The 200-acre Long Island Solar Farm (LISF) located at the east end of Brookhaven Lab (Photo courtesy of BNL).

A troubling new trend in Suffolk County is pitting environmentalists against civic groups: clear cutting forested open spaces to make way for solar panels. The times they are a-changin’.

It used to be that environmentalists and civic leaders would unite to preserve what little scraps of open, vacant and forested land Long Island had left. Back in more radical days resident activists would even chain themselves to the trees.

More recently, the moment some development project with an ironic name like Shady Brook Meadows would get zoning approval opponents would file an Article 78 lawsuit to appeal it.

College Match Quiz

These days, civics and environmentalists are at odds with one another. Solar power, the promised salvation for many homeowners’ utility woes, has been scaled up to the commercial level. As of last summer, LI had more than 10,000 installations of solar panels on resident rooftops, commercial warehouses and free-standing arrays. The Suffolk County Planning Commission, in a proactive move, gave regional solar arrays a welcome jolt by making siting and placement recommendations.

From there, the picture gets a bit cloudier.

As highlighted by recent cases involving the clearing of hundreds of acres of woodlands to make way for solar panels, the issue is not cooling off. From rumblings of a solar proposal for the 800-acre Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant site, which would have the potential to generate 50 megawatts of power on roughly 300 acres of the site, to a 60-acre solar project already underway in Shoreham’s DeLalio Sod Farm, points east of Route 110 are facing extreme developmental pressures—from a relatively benign, eco-friendly use.

In one instance, Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine, a Republican, is right to argue against the potential clearing of 130-acres of Suffolk County-owned land in both Bellport and Yaphank for solar panels. The cash-strapped county is claiming that the town’s opposition is premature and the project will conform to the county’s own adopted guidelines, but the jury is out. Given Suffolk’s shoddy track record with developing land in Yaphank a few years ago, who knows what will happen.

Meanwhile, in Mastic, Jerry Rosengarten, a private developer, has proposed turning a 100-acre wooded parcel near the headwaters of the Forge River into a solar array. What is surprising is that Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE), an environmental group that is typically fiercely protective of all things green, supports the plan, reportedly calling the 19.2-megawatt solar array a “beneficial and prudent use of the land.”

CCE is right that the land can be put to a more intensive use, as determined by the parcel’s current as-of-right zoning. When residents protest a solar array proposal, it’s important they consider underlying land use restrictions. Is a solar farm a worse usage than 50 single-family homes or a commercial office complex?

“Solar is technically limited to areas adjacent to transmission lines and to substations,” Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society told the Long Island Advance. “So all government has to do is map those corridors and select the most appropriate places for solar and they haven’t done it.”

But clearing trees for solar usage isn’t exactly sound planning. There are plenty of already-disturbed sites that would be appropriate for an array. And there’s another concern: supply. Apparently there is enough surplus energy to meet the Island’s needs through at least 2028.

The New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) issued a press release last week touting a staff report on the state’s electric system that the generation capacity is currently adequate. It said that “transmission and distribution utility owners are prepared to meet expected customer demands this summer.” What’s more, it added that it expects wholesale electricity prices to be lower or stable through this summer as well.

Meanwhile, LI’s building trades and, unsurprisingly, Caithness LLC, try to ramp up support for Caithness II, a 750-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant proposed for Yaphank. But PSEG LI says it’s unnecessary. There is more than enough power to go around—almost 411 megawatts—and that figure will rise to 488 megawatts when projects already in the energy pipeline come online by 2020. For reference, one megawatt can power roughly 164 homes.

As a whole, the state is trying to move away “from decades of rate-setting decisions which encouraged investment in large, centralized power systems,” according to the PSC. New York’s electric grid was built during the last century to meet the peak electric demand that occurs only a few days each year, resulting in an energy and financially inefficient system. Under new regulations, utilities in New York will be required to develop a more efficient and cleaner network that uses energy resources like solar, geothermal, wind, fuel cells, and other energy alternatives.

Long Island has ample power supply now, yet industry insiders are pushing old power generation technology that may or may not be redundant—and at great expense to all Long Islanders with the exception of the Longwood School District, which would greatly benefit from the millions of dollars in annual pilot payments a new plant would generate. On top of that, the commercial solar sector is booming. But instead of siting projects on brownfields and other assorted sites ripe for repurposing, privately owned vacant parcels are being pitched, much to the consternation of local residents and civic groups.

What the Island truly needs is a frank, honest assessment of the region’s energy needs that cuts through the quagmire of mixed messaging residents are frequently exposed to.

Our current maze of industry-backed studies, rhetoric and NIMBY-fueled fears is not a proper environment to conduct policymaking. Let’s brighten up the process with clear, data-driven analysis. But one thing is certain: Cutting down trees for green energy misses the point. If we want to let the sunshine in, we have to find a better way.