Rich Murdocco


LIRR’s Third Track Needs Full Support Now—No More Local Stops Down The Line

LIRR Train Driver
A lone passenger boards a Long Island Rail Road train in Long Beach (Joe Abate).

The time has come for Long Islanders to get all aboard the Long Island Rail Road’s third track proposal.

As resurrected by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his state of the state address in January, the third track would run along a 9.8-mile stretch between Floral Park and Hicksville that serves 107,000 riders on an average weekday. During peak times, the LIRR is forced to run trains in only one direction, which becomes a huge bottleneck whenever equipment breaks down or some other unforeseen delay arises. This main line expansion is intended to relieve that decades-old bottleneck. But almost as soon as the governor announced it, community opposition—especially within Floral Park—was galvanized.

Given the project’s troubled history, the protesters had good reason to raise their voices, especially since many who owned homes along the main line feared that their properties would be condemned by the “big bad” New York State.

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Recently, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority released what’s known as scoping documents that say what will be included in the draft environmental impact statement, an important step in getting the once-estimated $1.5-billion project underway. While the final cost is still being calculated, the main aspects are clear. Essentially, the MTA is planning to plan.

In its most recent iteration, the third track may not have as much impact on nearby residential properties as once was feared. Even better, the current project is expected to remain within the existing LIRR right-of-way and eliminate each of the seven grade crossings in the project’s corridor. This benefit alone is a sizable carrot to the municipalities protesting any expansion of the railroad. The MTA is also looking to require the acquisition of fewer than 10 commercial properties.

As such, Long Island’s support for the third track should be a no-brainer—but only if the proper upgrades are made to the system in conjunction with the line expansion. These upgrades are needed to not only enhance the effectiveness of the third track project, but allow for the region to net the maximum benefits of other large-scale initiatives being undertaken by the LIRR such as East Side Access—now slated to be completed in 2023 (only 14 years later than first predicted and at $10.8 billion only $6.5 billion more than initially projected)—and the double track planned between Ronkonkoma and Farmingdale to relieve congestion in that heavily traveled line.

Long Island’s future depends on its LIRR connection.

“We talk about rebuilding our downtowns, locating affordable housing near train stations, and getting people out of cars and into trains,” said Long Island’s veteran planner, Lee Koppelman. “The simple truth is that in order to do all that, you need to improve the service. That’s where multiple tracking comes in.”

Koppelman served 28 years as the first Suffolk County Planner, 41 years as the regional planner for Nassau and Suffolk, and now going on a decade as the executive director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies at Stony Brook University. Like so many of the other projects kicking around these days, Koppelman noted that the third track has been on the table for nearly 40 years.

Koppelman would like to take the third track concept even further, calling for the electrification of the LIRR’s main line from Ronkonkoma east out to Calverton, as well as adding multiple tracking on the North Shore branches.

The railroad is pushing hard for the third track because the East Side Access would bring the LIRR right under the East River and into Grand Central Terminal. That project’s completion would be truly transformative for the entire LIRR system. With East Side Access being the principal force behind a projected ridership increase of 27.5 percent within the next 30 years, the railroad is preparing the rest of the system for the residual demands. Adding the third track would have a huge impact.

During the peak morning commute, there is no eastbound service for one and a half hours, while peak evening does not have westbound service for an hour. While the data for reverse commuting is ambiguous, the complete lack of reverse service on that line during peak times is troubling indeed.

Also concerning are the seven locations in Nassau where the road meets the railroad. On a typical weekday more than 220 trains run along that track, and these crossing gates have to do their duty for each one that goes by. One industry insider told me that in New Hyde Park, they’re down 24 minutes out of every hour during peak times—and that’s an average, not when you’re stuck in a line of cars waiting for the gate to rise. The proposed overpasses should alleviate these commuting headaches and a compact redesign should reduce the project’s impact on the corridor.

When the third track was last discussed seriously, beginning in 2005, the projected cost was $1.5 billion. By 2008, the project was essentially dead-on-arrival thanks to the large number of properties slated for condemnation, and not enough political will to see it through.

The current iteration doesn’t have a final price tag yet, but Cuomo has made it clear that this project is a New York State priority. Fewer property purchases are required this time around, but more grade crossings are slated for elimination, so the cost will change. So far, $6.95 million was spent on related environmental studies. The third track’s completion is slated for some time in 2020. With the third track’s community outreach efforts modeled after those used by state officials during the new Tappan Zee bridge construction by hosting a series of community meetings, setting up a physical project center at the Mineola Train Station, and a sleek website, it seems the MTA and LIRR have learned the lessons of 2008.

According to the scoping documents, the MTA estimates that construction should take “three to four years,” but Long Islanders know how these things often work out.

In 2008, Carolyn Nardiello of The New York Times reported on the shifting justification behind the third track, as described by then-LIRR President Helena Williams. “The initial reason given for a third track was an increase in reverse commuting from Manhattan to Long Island. Mrs. Williams said that the railroad’s previous leadership thought that after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, businesses would relocate to Long Island and increase ridership. But that did not happen, and the railroad’s rationale for a third track changed—to that of relieving congestion on train lines.”

Meanwhile, ridership continues to surge, during peak and off-peak commuting times. The claim that reverse commuting has risen is problematic. Since the best policy is data-driven, the LIRR should release the details rather than sharing anecdotal evidence. The projected job and economic impact figures released by the Long Island Index and other third-track project supporters such as the Long Island Association are attractive (if not at times a bit pie-in-the-sky), but weary residents will be most receptive to hearing how the third track will improve their daily commute and their quality of life.

One cannot say the LIRR and MTA aren’t trying to win over their hearts and minds along the corridor this time around. Since the project was announced in January, officials met with village mayors, prospective commercial property owners who may be impacted, and area school boards. Local residents will get their turn to comment about the scoping of the DEIS in an upcoming series of meetings held in afternoons and evenings.

Moving forward, it’s critical that both the MTA and LIRR communicate the tangible benefits of the third track to the daily riders who know its present shortcomings better than anyone. They should also clearly spell out how getting rid of those seven crossing grades will positively affect the community as well as the commuters.

With good planning, the goal is a project that is regional in scope yet still local in implementation. The third track seems to hit both those notes. Let’s fast-track this project before it’s too late.

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 veteran master planner. Murdocco is a regular contributor to the Long Island Press. More of his views can be found on TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

Is Bellone’s Bid for a Drinking Water Tax Proposal a Ploy to Promote Development?

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. (Photo credit: Suffolk County Executive's office)

From the crowded podium at an outdoor press conference in Yaphank last month, backed by a supportive chorus of environmentalists, bureaucrats, civic leaders and elected officials, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced his method of corralling his public water enemy No. one: nitrogen.

The answer? A small, modest fee on water usage, which according to Newsday, would require “state legislation to allow voters to decide whether they want to create a water quality protection fee of $1 per 1,000 gallons of water used.”

With an estimated annual revenue of nearly $75 million, the new money stream would funnel into a “Water Quality Improvement Fund” with the sole purpose of paying for wastewater improvements, including hooking residences and other assorted areas to sewer plants as well as giving homeowners the opportunity to get septic system upgrades.

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Creating new taxes for the sake of water protection is a sound idea, and it has ample policy precedent, for such a model has been used before to help fund open space acquisitions for decades. Further, according to Bellone’s statement, it has been employed in Spokane, Wash., which similarly relies on a sole source aquifer for drinking water.

Despite these positive factors, the motives of the administration behind these actions aren’t sincere. In the end, the proposed new water fee isn’t as much about protecting the environment as it is to create more development opportunities for the real estate industry. The solutions offered by the county’s water protection plan aren’t substantive enough. Essentially, the document’s main approach to water protection focuses on sewers, and their relative effectiveness in achieving nitrogen reduction—a faulty foundation on which to build environmental policy thanks to the limited effectiveness these facilities have had on Long Island.

Regardless of the intentions behind imposing the fee, the call for a referendum on the issue is a brilliant political move. At the ballot box, time and time again Long Islanders have overwhelmingly supported environmental issues related to water protection, so the measure is likely to pass easily. What is most concerning, though, is that many voters who may give their approval won’t realize the ramifications.

Newsday’s Editorial Board, typically gung-ho for such environmental actions, wrote a cautious April 29 editorial that called for additional analysis of the proposal, saying that “the plan lacks details.” They advocated for slowing down what they saw as a rushed process. The editorial board was right, but they didn’t go far enough. The reason why the process is being sped up is because the county executive is eager to put shovels in the ground. The paper should have dug deeper into the linkage between the supposed environmental actions of the administration, and Bellone’s strong desire to build, build, build.

The true ideological roots of this new fee can be traced back to the latest iteration of Suffolk County’s Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan. Buried within that document in Section 8, the plan tellingly calls for ways to “stimulate development in order to promote economic growth and stability.”

This bureaucratic code translates into the creation of sewers, which, in turn, allows for more developmental density. Advocates for downtown Smithtown and Kings Park are already chomping at the bit for wastewater treatment, having wanted sewer linkages for decades to jumpstart their lagging economic development efforts.

Curbing the nitrogen issue is one thing, but looking to ramp up developmental efforts at the same time is disingenuous. Simply put, jumpstarting LI’s anemic economy shouldn’t be the burden of environmental policy. They should be mutually exclusive efforts with interconnected goals. Economic development can be achieved without adversely impacting the environment, but the Island’s elected officials just haven’t achieved the right balance to achieve it yet.

The bigger issue, however, is can we trust the county with this additional $75 million flowing into its coffers every year? The notion of taxing the water we drink is like taxing the air we breathe in the view of veteran policymakers like Paul Sabatino, a former deputy county executive who previously sued the county over misappropriation of the existing quarter-cent sales tax that already funds Suffolks’s Drinking Water Protection Program. Given recent legal happenings with the county’s clean water fund, residents have the right to be suspicious about Suffolk using the fee for the purpose it is intended. For all intents and purposes, Bellone has not earned that trust back just yet.

Karl Grossman, a veteran award-winning investigative reporter, is also concerned about how much of the water fee is tied to the county’s push for sewers.

“Bellone has been promoting sewering in Suffolk County largely for economic development reasons,” Grossman recently told me. “He feels sewers would be a huge incentive in encouraging development and financial stimulation that he sees coming as a result. Thus, questions have been raised over how much of the sewer push is being made under the guise of environmental protection and also about the impacts of widespread new sewering.”

Grossman argued that existing limitations on growth will likely disappear with additional sewering, much to the delight of the development community. As Grossman put it to me, this is “something the bulldozer boys who have ravaged and paved over so much of western Long Island and now have their eyes on its east and areas of moderate growth in western Suffolk would love to see.”

In fairness to the Bellone administration, LI does have a serious nitrogen problem in its ground and surface waters. As evidenced by the almost annual algae blooms and fish kills, it has gotten worse. At least the county executive is trying to take tangible action to reverse the decline. Run-off from Suffolk’s mostly outdated 360,000 cesspools and septic systems does pollute our water quality, but connecting these properties to sewage treatment should be separate from efforts to develop unsewered downtowns and parcels.

“The good element about the plan,” observed Grossman, “is that it, in part, pays attention to advanced wastewater treatment systems—systems for single homes and communities that utilize new technology now used in areas all over the US in removing nitrogen from wastewater. With nitrogen being the key cause of brown tides, red tides and the deterioration of our waters, these new systems would be ideal for Suffolk County.”

In the press release announcing the proposal, development-friendly groups offered their support alongside local environmental groups. In the developer cohort, Desmond Ryan of the Association for a Better Long Island, a pro-business lobbying group, said the fee is all about reconciling growth and water quality, saying that  “striking that balance between environmental protection and comprehensive economic development will only assist in making Suffolk County a great place to do business.”

To Grossman, this sewer talk is déjà vu all over again.

“As a reporter, I covered the Southwest Sewer District project of the 1970s—pushed by construction, engineering and development interests—and it also was claimed to be needed for environmental reasons,” he said. “It became a $1 billion scandal.”

And, he pointed out, that staggering sum represented the value of the dollar back then. Tellingly, the federal government paid 80 percent of the cost, a totally unlikely prospect today.

Bellone’s proposal would be a decent solution if his administration had pure intentions—and if the public could trust that the funding would be spent as promised. If the referendum is eventually approved, the fee would take effect in 2018.

Ideally, the $75 million in annual revenue should only be allocated to help homeowners in decidedly residential, single-family subdivisions convert their existing systems to sewers. But if the water fee doesn’t win the public’s affection, perhaps with the cheap debt available in today’s market, the county should consider just bonding the expected $9 billion it would take to construct the needed sewers.

But the current proposal is purposely vague about what limitations it might impose on the fee’s uses. What’s to prevent it from quickly becoming a slush fund for the politically connected, and in the long run, help contribute to the further decline of Long Island’s drinking and surface waters by overdevelopment? Nobody wants that, at least officially. But in Suffolk these days, it seems that the desire to conduct business is trumping doing what’s needed to protect our threatened aquifer.

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 veteran master planner. Murdocco is a regular contributor to the Long Island Press. More of his views can be found on TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

Who Cares What’s Next for The Long Island Index?

A rendering of what Wyandanch Rising could look like someday, with plenty of affordable housing options within walking distance of the LIRR. (courtesy BHC Architects)

After providing significant analysis of our region’s various maladies for more than a decade, the Rauch Foundation is actively looking to find a new organization to permanently take over publication of the Long Island Index.

“We think the Index is ripe for a re-visioning,” said Ann Golob, director of the Long Island Index, via a news release. “And we welcome new ideas about how to use research, surveys, mapping and any other possible tools to address Long Island’s future.”

If one of the few remaining independent voices ceases to exist, then an honest assessment of LI’s present and future could be seriously hampered. Depending on who (if anyone) opts to scoop up the Index, Long Islanders could lose not only a valuable resource for data, but yet another unique voice in the narrowing regional discourse regarding our development issues.

This situation is concerning—especially when one takes stock of just who, exactly, is driving the discussion.

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Currently, Long Island’s development issues are explored by a decreasing number of players and perspectives. Traditionally, the region’s local weeklies explore them on a granular level: the Town Board wants to approve a gas station here, a variance there. On the larger scale, publications such as Newsday, Long Island Business News and the Long Island Press cover the basics of larger real estate projects before occasionally diving in deeper.

Local governments are in the mix as well. At the Town level, conversation about such issues mirror those of the weekly papers. It’s a little different at the county level. In recent years, Suffolk County’s Planning Department was merged with Economic Development, a blow to their autonomy, which was followed by the outsourcing of work to outside firms. Now county leadership often uses the department as a tool to serve their ideological goals. In Nassau, its county planners are so overworked, understaffed and underappreciated, they rarely engage in important discourse.

Vested stakeholder groups such as the Long Island Builders Institute, the Long Island Association, Long Island Housing Partnership, Vision Long Island and others also drive the discussion, but their policy recommendations must be taken with a grain of salt thanks to their inherent biases. Others, like Destination Long Island, founded by Renaissance Downtowns as a way to supposedly drive millennial participation in the local development process, have come and gone with nary a whimper. These days, the Regional Plan Association seems to be juggling the entire New York metropolitan region, which includes New York City and its suburban environs, so its focus on Nassau and Suffolk is limited to viewing the Island as one piece of a much larger environment.

Regarding the future of the Index, it will all boil down to who will take it on. Perhaps it will be the Long Island Association, the business advocacy group led by Kevin Law, who is cozy with various industry insiders and governmental entities. Given the close relationship the Long Island Index and LIA have shared, this move would be the most logical, especially since the LIA has been aligned ideologically with it on projects such as the LIRR Third Track, the drive for more multifamily housing, and in previous years, the necessary expansion of the region’s academic, health sciences and research sector.

Maybe one of the Island’s many academic institutions will see the value of what the Index has to offer, supporting their own efforts to better understand trends, growth and where exactly Nassau and Suffolk Counties are headed. For example, if Hofstra University or Stony Brook University agreed to publish the Index, would their students be able to participate in collecting data and writing reports? Acquiring the Index could position not only a school to be a leading policymaker on LI, but expose its students to a process that would benefit from their fresh insights.

Although it’s probably unlikely, maybe the Index would be taken over by Vision Long Island, the developer-friendly, smart-growth nonprofit organization that has scoffed at Rauch’s regional approach to the Island because it favors a development strategy that is focused on “hyperlocal place making.” The Index’s vast resources of regional data and name-brand recognition carry weight in the media and real estate circles, so it might be worthwhile for Vision LI to broaden its horizons by thinking bigger and more academically, two aspects the Index embodies. It’s not like Vision and the Index aren’t compatible. Both are regarded as pro-growth organizations, and Vision’s “hyperlocalism” has impacts that resonate beyond the town line. For that matter, can it really be considered hyperlocal if every village in Nassau and Suffolk counties wants to follow the same template for economic development?

We want our regional strategies to be data-driven, and they should take the best aspects of home-grown localism and large-scale regionalism. Perhaps a marriage between Vision Long Island and the Long Island Index would facilitate that.

Unfortunately, regardless of who takes over the Index, it will more than likely become just another member of Long Island’s “mutual admiration society” (a term a friend of mine in planning circles coined rather adeptly)—vested industry interests and insiders who puff each other up with the same stale recommendations for Long Island’s future. And that would be a shame.

There simply isn’t enough diversity of thought when it comes to discussion of real estate development on the Island. Since 2003, the Rauch Foundation’s Long Island Index has been a very valuable resource for data on the region. I sincerely hope it finds a new home that allows it to present research in an independent fashion that doesn’t bow to the real estate industry’s demand-driven policymaking.

In my own policy analysis and writing I’ve aimed to accomplish much of what the Index initially sought to do: package Long Island’s regional issues in a friendly manner without losing the nuances these complex issues have. As such, I always felt a kinship with the Index, for I respected its ability to present data in an approachable manner.

Golob is correct in saying that it is a good time to reevaluate the future of the Long Island Index project. Its recent presentation and findings were flawed, seemingly more aligned with industry puff pieces than with hard-nosed data-analysis. Rauch’s Long Island Index was claiming that the “value created” through increasing density will trickle down to tenants, fostering affordability in housing. It was a pro-building approach that has been disproven in New York City, and a far cry from the Index’s recommendations of smart open space preservation policies and water protection efforts.

While I’ve disagreed with some of their more recent recommendations,  I have always respected the work that they have done. In particular, the Index’s data indicators, showcasing shifting demographic trends, and interactive maps that highlight anything from multifamily developments to visualizations of census data, have been incredibly helpful in an ongoing quest to quantify and understand LI’s on-the-ground realities.

The Index’s contributions to a conversation that has been traditionally dominated by vested interests has been invaluable, as has its ability to make supposedly “boring” data sets approachable and eye-catching to the general public. ‪Sound planning efforts are fueled by a variety of opinions and perspectives, all which contribute to a healthy discourse and ideally, more vibrant policymaking.

If the Index is shuttered next year, the conversation could become so much less engaging that it’s practically pointless. Let’s hope it finds a happy home.

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 veteran master planner. Murdocco is a regular contributor to the Long Island Press. More of his views can be found on www.TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

Syosset Park is Going to Be a Great Place—Someday, Maybe

Taubman won't get to build a luxury mall after all at the old Cerro Wire property site by Long Island Expressway Exit 43A now that the Syosset Park project is on the table.

Syosset Park is a rarity in Nassau County: It’s a large-scale development of regional significance. The proposal for the former Cerro Wire property is now slated for an environmental review by the Town of Oyster Bay, a municipality that has seen its share of troubles as of late. The process could take up to two years. So far, nothing beyond conceptual artwork and specs has been finalized.

Will Long Island’s market even be able to support the finalized mixed-use plan by then? It’s a good question, among many others.

When the Michigan-based Taubman Centers proposed building a luxury mall on the property by Robbins Lane and the Long Island Expressway service road, community opposition lasted for almost two decades, fueled in no small part by the Simon Property Group, their rival mall developers. In 2014, Taubman sold out to Simon, which had already bought adjacent public property from Oyster Bay Town for $32.5 million. Simon reportedly paid Taubman $230 million for the 39-acre Cerro site but the deal also included Taubman’s interest in a mall in Arizona that the two companies had jointly owned so the exact sum is hard to parse.

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So, who did win? Was it the Town of Oyster Bay? Supervisor John Venditto’s efforts to stop the project culminated in a 2013 referendum, which led to the sale of the Town’s 54-acre public works site adjacent to the property. Were the residents victorious? Their town is struggling to maintain its ever-dwindling coffers, and is starving for sales and property taxes to stay afloat. Or is the answer buried in the complex economics of project development in Nassau County?

The new developer, Oyster Bay Development LLC, is a cooperative effort by Castagna Realty, the Albanese Organization and Simon Property Group. They’re pitching an ambitious vision for Syosset Park: 625 owned residential units, complete with 355,000 square feet of retail and 200,000 square feet of office space on 93 acres. Finer points of the proposal include “two business-style, boutique hotels” with a total of 325 rooms, 65,000 square feet of restaurant space, and 35,000 square feet of “entertainment/theater offerings.” The housing will be mixed only by type, and not by ownership: flats, condos, townhouses, “traditional cottages,” and full-sized single family homes.

With project specs like these, more common to a Suffolk County proposal for somewhere along the William Floyd Parkway than in the heart of mostly built-up Nassau, one might think the new developers are too ambitious. But with memories of Taubman’s luxury mall seared into the minds of area residents, the team was smart. Syosset Park is a much better option for the community than Taubman’s original mall proposal. These developers presented an attractive development that hits all the right notes and skips any discord.

It’s an interesting project—likeable even—but it counters the narrative that so many developers in our region have tied their futures (and fortunes) to: Rentals are nowhere to be seen. According to the Long Island Index, we could use at least 72,000 units to fill the need for affordable housing. This Syosset Park plan doesn’t even mention the other buzzwords: “attainable” and “workforce.”

The project team knows their audience well. The Town of Oyster Bay has a notoriously low tolerance for high-density development. So, do the residents win with this project? Perhaps. They get the type of growth that they want—and they get to keep out the people that they don’t. Even better for them is that no mall will be thrust upon them.

The town surely wins. After getting a cash infusion of $32.5 million for its public land, and the supposed eventual tax revenue from the retail, office and “entertainment” usage, Oyster Bay could expect more money in the coming decades. The development team comes out ahead, too. Resident opposition to the proposal was seemingly muted when it was first announced, with nary a whimper over the last year. Once the environmental review is completed, Syosset Park project will likely be approved in some shape or form.

But planning in the western portion of LI is different from what happens out east. Nassau’s political power structure has been corroded with patronage and rocked by scandal, while Oyster Bay’s residents are openly questioning the integrity of the town’s planning department in the wake of its own improprieties. It’s reasonable to doubt that data and community need take precedence over insider deals and under-the-table offerings.

With Syosset Park, a detailed, multi-year environmental review is a necessity because of the complex environmental issues present. From the capped landfill to the site’s former superfund status, the impact of placing residential development there must be properly assessed before any more steps are taken. But how can residents trust that the review will be sound when it’s carried out under the auspices of local governments with dubious reputations like theirs?

And that’s just the environmental facet of this complex proposal. Economically, Syosset Park is a game changer thanks to the sizable introduction of market-rate housing, retail and commercial offerings. But can the Island’s already tight commercial market absorb yet another 200,000 square feet of commercial office space or 355,000 square feet of retail?

Large-scale developments are cropping up from Yaphank to Islip, Ronkonkoma to Mineola. These other projects are pitching the same benefits that are supposed to accrue from Syosset Park’s completion. But it will mean nothing if the office space is vacant and the new stores are empty. And will families who move into the “walkable community” that Syosset Park is supposed to become find themselves played for suckers?

So, once again, despite the latest news, Cerro Wire remains full of questions.

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 veteran master planner. Murdocco is a regular contributor to the Long Island Press. More of his views can be found on www.TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

Doling Out Tax Breaks Doesn’t Stop Companies From Taking Our Money and Running

CA Technologies Islandia (Photo credit: Google Maps)

Long Island’s Industrial Development Agencies have long been a source of power and patronage for local politicians, yet the IDAs’ effectiveness at actually fulfilling their official function of retaining jobs in the region is questionable at best. Let’s say it’s a dubious work in progress.

From the departure of companies such as OSI Pharmaceuticals, Goya Foods, Arrow Electronics and Symbol Technologies, to the famous exodus of a huge entity like Northrop Grumman, Long Island’s corporate employment pool is ever-shrinking. Newsday reported that since 2003, the Nassau-Suffolk region has lost more than 30 corporations in some form.

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While CA Technologies still has a presence at 1 Computer Associates Plaza in Islandia, it’s no longer based on Long Island because its CEO recently moved its corporate headquarters across the East River. More than two decades ago CA got $13 million in low-cost IDA financing, sales tax breaks and property tax abatements. Earlier this month, First Data Corp., a credit-card processing company, announced it was shedding 641 jobs on Long Island. In 2003, the Suffolk IDA had given it more than $3 million in property tax breaks over 10 years to help offset the construction costs of its Melville facility.

Given the drain on the Long Island economy, you’d think policymakers would be scrambling to stop the hemorrhaging. In one sense, they are—by continuing to put their faith in the IDAs to attract, retain and nurture local and regional businesses. But it doesn’t come cheap. One notable exception to the corporate flight is Canon U.S.A., which got a reported $31 million in benefits from the Suffolk IDA, including $18 million in sales tax exemptions and some $13 million in property tax abatements over a 10-year-period for simply moving from Lake Success in Nassau to Melville in Suffolk.

In New York State, legislative action in 1969 allowed for the creation of IDAs to “facilitate economic development in specific localities, and delineating their powers and status as public benefit corporations.” According to a 2006 report from the State Comptroller’s office, New York has 115 active IDAs, at least one in each county, as well as in cities, villages and towns. In Suffolk County, Babylon, Brookhaven, Islip and Riverhead towns also have their own IDA, while in Nassau, Glen Cove and Hempstead Town do.

Ask Paul Sabatino, a former chief deputy Suffolk County executive in the Steve Levy administration, about these Industrial Development Agencies, and his voice tenses up as he calls them a collective “poster child for crony capitalism.”

Sabatino, an outspoken critic of the concept, was quick to note that “every dollar given by IDAs is a dollar taxpayers need to pay.”

The money is freely handed out by Long Island’s IDAs. According to New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, our IDAs were among the most active regions in the state in 2013, granting $114.1 million in tax breaks to 851 projects. The results of these efforts reportedly generated 40,092 jobs valued around $9.9 billion, resulting in $3,506 in tax exemptions per job gained.

But it’s worth taking a closer look. Suffolk County’s IDA granted $644 in tax breaks for every job gained, while Nassau’s IDA granted a ludicrous $23,611 in tax breaks per job. Nor does the disparity stop there. The Nassau IDA’s effectiveness is also questionable, having generated a mere 1,835 jobs, while the Suffolk IDA allegedly netted 14,080.

Others have joined the growing chorus of IDA critics. Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos issued a press release last year titled “Nassau IDA Needs to Do Better,” which detailed the entities’ “apparent underperformance” and noted that Nassau’s IDA “appears to have created or retained an average of seven jobs per project while Suffolk created or retained about 105 jobs per project.”

Aside from the dubious allocation of money, the Nassau County IDA seems to make doubtful decisions about which projects they believe are worthy of taxpayer subsidy. Thanks to a legal loophole in state law that allows IDAs to grant tax breaks for retail projects as long as they are “related to tourism,” a Costco slated for Oceanside was put on the docket to receive substantive tax breaks, as was Life Time Fitness in Garden City, which was deemed equally appealing to tourists. The IDA took no action on the Costco application after a public outcry about it, but Life Time was a bit more successful, with LIBN reporting at the time that Nassau IDA officials approved a 20-year Payment In Lieu Of Taxes package and authorized up to $2 million in savings on sales taxes.

Nassau County IDA wasn’t the only one to find excuses to go beyond its purview. As helpfully pointed out by Newsday’s Editorial Board, the Town of Babylon IDA granted Tanger Outlets at the Arches in Deer Park tax breaks using the same “tourism” loophole. Joining the chorus, the editorial page of the New York Post weighed in to ask: “Where is the political support for the only truly sensible policy: making New York more attractive to all business investment, without the crony capitalism—and with the same set of rules for everyone?”

Comptroller DiNapoli’s report did produce a tangible result in December 2015 when an IDA reform bill became law. At the time, DiNapoli said, “These measures build upon many of the best practices employed by some IDAs around the state and should reassure taxpayers that private businesses are being adequately scrutinized prior to receiving public support and that communities can recoup benefits if job creation goals are not met.”

Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos hasn’t seen any marked improvement in Nassau’s IDA since the reform was passed. He told this writer that things are “exactly the same as before.” Maragos stressed that his goal “was not to criticize, but to motivate the IDA. The IDA should set forth a vision of how to create an economic engine for Nassau County.”

He wanted the Nassau IDA to conduct public hearings as well as a cost-benefit analysis of the tax-abatement proposals on the table. “If one of their efforts doesn’t hold up to the scrutiny of a public hearing,” Maragos told me, “it shouldn’t be approved.”

But the IDAs’ actual structure may be at issue. According to Sabatino, these entities aren’t about merely preserving Long Island’s business community as designed.

“It’s all about access for the political class,” said Sabatino recently. “The basic economic principles of the IDAs are faulty. You are essentially taking taxpayer dollars to let politicians pick economic winners and losers based on politics and personalities—not objective review.”

This lack of objective review is not only ineffective at fostering growth, it’s harmful for the overall economy. Flexing political power over objective planning ends up making Long Island lose its already dwindling competitive advantage due to the high costs of living here. Even after the subsidies are handed out, the jobs still leave for greener pastures.

For his county to succeed, Maragos said, “Nassau needs to be the best in one or two industries. Low unemployment figures mask the fact that job totals are back to 2008 levels. If we don’t do anything, Nassau’s future won’t be bright.”

But the two sectors our economy does seem to be increasingly relying on are retail and hospitality, which are vulnerable to the business cycle and are not known for producing high paying jobs. Because our policymaking remains fragmented, the Island’s future continues to suffer. The IDAs compete over the scraps while other states beckon our struggling industries with enticing deals. The vested interests that benefit from the status quo here have little incentive to change it. Why would they? They’re more concerned with keeping their fiefdoms in power, as long our taxpayers are willing to foot the bill.

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 veteran master planner. Murdocco is a regular contributor to the Long Island Press. More of his views can be found on www.TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

(Photo credit: Google Maps)

Downtowns Are All the Rage These Days But Some Places Can’t Handle the Development

On Long Island these days, downtowns are happening places—at least in policy circles. From the governor’s office to the local village, it’s the buzz word that everybody’s talking about.

In Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s current budget proposal, 10 regions across New York State can each get up to $10 million to help spur downtown redevelopment efforts. But interested municipalities first will have to apply for the grants before they can start putting the money to work. Shepherding the application process here is the ever-active Long Island Regional Economic Development Council (LIREDC), charged with jumpstarting our region’s anemic growth. Details remain to be ironed out as the state’s budget takes final shape.

residential moving guide

The Suffolk County Industrial Development Agency, a public benefit corporation of New York State, has supposedly been hot to trot on spurring downtown redevelopment. For some reason the IDA recently hired what Newsday simply reported was “a planning group” to assist Amityville, Kings Park and Smithtown with their efforts. The unnamed group turned out to be the New York City-based Regional Plan Association (RPA), which has been increasing its workload across Suffolk County as of late. In the past, the RPA and Suffolk had a relatively arms-length relationship. Under the current Bellone administration, however, the RPA has been making inroads.

This begs the question: why is the Suffolk County IDA hiring an outside, New York City-centric organization to conduct planning work that could easily be done through the county’s myriad in-house professional departments including Planning and Economic Development, the Department of Public Works, and the Department of Health Services?

These departments have a strong history of tackling much more complex issues than the redevelopment of these relatively simple downtown areas—and they’ve conducted robust studies and analyses on that subject, too. Empowered by Suffolk County Legislature resolution No. 212-2000, “Establishing a ‘Smart Growth’ Policy for Suffolk County Implementation,” the Department of Planning went full-steam ahead, examining the relevant issues associated with the notion of integrating density within downtown areas over the last 16 years.

Examples of their efforts include a publication entitled Smart Communities Through Smart Growth: Applying Smart Growth principles to Suffolk County Towns and Villages from March of 2000, or November of 2003’s Analysis and Prioritization of the Recommendations of the Smart Growth Policy Plan for Suffolk County, which said in its executive summary: “Encourage the development of area-wide or regional Smart Growth plans that address the protection of drinking water resources as well as provide a plan for a reallocation of density to permit compact centers of development and open space.”

Suffolk County published one especially helpful document on downtown redevelopment in May 2006 entitled Shopping Centers and Downtowns, which took detailed inventory of downtown conditions. Smithtown, Amityville and Kings Park were highlighted alongside other areas in this report, which presented an interesting finding: “While some downtown areas are in need of improvement and have had chronic vacancy problems, it is a mistake to state that downtown areas are in decline. On the contrary, many downtown areas are thriving.”

Granted, these findings were reached before the housing crisis and subsequent nosedive of the economy, but Long Island’s land use patterns changed very little in the years during and after the Great Recession.

So, the question remains: Why is the IDA outsourcing their efforts?

The simple truth is that Suffolk County didn’t like the answers its in-house departments provided, and the administration went searching for another organization to provide solutions that aligned with its pro-development agenda.

It fits the pattern of behavior coming from the Dennison Building as of late, which seems to favor building over more balanced approaches to foster growth. You would expect the LIREDC to promote economic development through new construction, but Suffolk County and its agencies should strive to balance the environmental, social and economic needs of the region, not be outsourcing work to fit the administration’s narrative.

The downtown areas being targeted for growth simply lack the infrastructure to handle explosive development. In addition, these locales are too far from New York City for its residents to take advantage of their proximity to the LIRR. If the RPA can suggest modest improvements that take into account the limitations of these areas, this planning exercise would be fruitful, but it seems these days everyone wants their downtown to become the next Mineola or Patchogue.

But we cannot trust local officials to always make the right decision for their municipalities, which is unfortunate, because these decisions often resonate across the region. The LIREDC should work with local, county and state officials to find which area would best utilize the $10 million now on the table, not only for the downtown to be impacted by the scope of funding, but find out which one would generate the widest benefits to all Long Islanders—not just those residents.

For too long, our municipalities have fought each other for scraps while other states eat our lunch. Why is Suffolk’s IDA working on downtown redevelopments instead of working with the Nassau IDA to save jobs on Long Island? Why isn’t the RPA joining with officials from across the spectrum to explore where the governor’s money would have the most impact?

We must look beyond the walls of our political fiefdoms and consider the big picture before we make the lights brighter in just our downtowns.

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 veteran master planner. Murdocco is a regular contributor to the Long Island Press. More of his views can be found on www.TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

Cuomo’s Plan to Study Long Island’s Water Woes a Baby Step in Right Direction

Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant
Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant


rom the tap, a glass of Long Island’s water is cool and refreshing—descriptions that any soft drink or craft-beer company would love to have on their label.

Geologically, our region is blessed with ample amounts of fresh, potable water. It is of such high quality that Lee Koppelman, Long Island’s master planner who heads the Center for Regional Policy Studies at Stony Brook University, often joked in class that in order to close Suffolk’s budget gaps, we should just bottle the county’s tap water and sell it at a premium price.

commercial moving guide

But today our supply is seriously threatened by overdevelopment, industrial malfeasance and political indifference.

Despite the importance of protecting this precious resource, the public policies are too often skewed by the hunger to build.

Recently Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to Stony Brook University to announce a major initiative to address New York’s water woes. His proposal would allocate $6 million for a new comprehensive groundwater study for Long Island to further examine levels of saltwater intrusion and chemical contamination–essentially the byproducts of over-pumping our aquifer and not having enough sewers.

In the decades since the last true assessment of our regional water quality was conducted, development has continued with scant regard for the looming environmental crisis at hand.

When it comes to water protection, Long Island’s policymakers have known what to do since the first federally funded study explored the issue in-depth in July of 1978. Conducted by the Long Island Regional Planning Board, the report determined the linkage between land use and water quality, an important connection that helped shape zoning laws across LI. In the years following that groundbreaking document, Suffolk County took the findings seriously and worked with New York State to protect the Central Pine Barrens and other environmentally sensitive areas from development, while Nassau County just shrugged.

How best to protect this essential resource is a long-running debate that pits environmentalists, developers, politicians, pundits and other familiar faces. They have conferences, hold panel discussions, pen op-eds and do other things to prime the pump. Currently, the push is on to Build! Build! Build!, but we must prioritize our drinking water as much as we prize retaining millennials and developing rental housing. The simple truth is that the aquifer holds the key to our future.

First, we must understand the current condition of our aquifer and then we must preserve its pristine purity in perpetuity. To achieve this, we must aggressively preserve more open space, cut down on contamination from pesticides and nitrogen-rich fertilizers—by-products from East End farming—and ensure that our region’s sewage treatment plants, from local community systems to the large municipal plants, are doing their job.

But one big obstacle that must be overcome is Nassau’s balkanized water providers. Their political fragmentation does a disservice to all Long Islanders. As a recent Newsday editorial deplored, the county has a patchwork quilt of “municipal districts, commissioner-run special districts, private corporations and public authorities.” Until these fiefdoms are united, no worthwhile planning effort can succeed.

Everybody knows what we need to do to protect our water. But who has the political will to do it? It’s taken dead fish carcasses piling up on the shoreline to dramatize the severity of our regional crisis, leading Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone to declare that nitrogen is “public water enemy number one.”

After Superstorm Sandy, the vulnerability of Nassau County’s fragile wastewater infrastructure was grotesquely revealed by the failure of the Bay Park wastewater treatment plant. Tons of untreated sewage were dumped into the surrounding waterways. The crap even ended up in people’s homes. Like the fish kills on the East End, Bay Park’s dysfunction was a public shame.

So, Cuomo deserves praise for his proposal to address the water worries of Nassau and Suffolk. But let’s hold off on the celebration until these actions bear fruit. Addressing the Grumman Plume in the Bethpage area is an excellent start, but more steps should be taken.

The state should also work with Suffolk to ensure that Article 6, which determines appropriate developmental density in environmentally critical areas, is enforced by local towns, as well as further monitoring of any sewer plant as set forth by the State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System under New York’s Environmental Conservation Law to make sure that the discharge standards are met.

As pressure mounts to develop Long Island at higher and higher densities with the proliferation of more sewer facilities in the endless quest for supposed economic gains, the vulnerability of the Island’s aquifers should not be forgotten.

New York State Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-East Setauket), a scientist first and longstanding elected official second, has been a champion of LI’s water issues since he first took office in Suffolk County in 1983. He was sitting on the dais with Cuomo at the governor’s recent announcement at Stony Brook. Since joining the Assembly in 1992, Englebright has been instrumental in securing open space preservation policies that still resonate today.

He called Cuomo’s new initiative “a positive first step in front of increasingly bad news on public water supplies both elsewhere in the country, and here at home…To have the chief executive take the time to come to Long Island and devote resources to this issue is a big deal.” Historically, water protection policies have not become weaker since the heyday of LI’s “208 Study,” as the ’78 report is known, Englebright said, but they follow a “pattern of involvement that goes back decades, and has accelerated as our understanding of the dimensions of the problems our aquifer faces.”

Despite the importance of protecting this precious resource, the public policies are too often skewed by the hunger to build.

Suffolk’s efforts have been stronger than its neighbor to the west, Englebright noted, “but there has been no lack of will on the part of Nassau.” He cited various resident-led efforts for water protection in Nassau, but said that the heavily developed county has “narrow options from a policy and development perspective.”

When asked whether the governor’s initiative will differ from past attempts that sought to balance economic growth and water protection, Englebright replied, “There will be a tendency for that perspective to be repeated… It will fall to advocates and elected officials (myself included) to say that sewering has its limits, and it is by no means a panacea.”

He says he favors recognizing the natural limitations of living on an Island.

“This particular Island isn’t the same as Manhattan, and wastewater isn’t the only measure of ensuring sustainable quality-of-life,” Englebright said. “There are many sources of contamination that come from development. Saltwater intrusion and pet waste are two examples, with the latter being directly proportional to the number of households.”

Today, Englebright notes that when it comes to environmental policy in the region, there is “a certain amount of memory loss from generation to generation in relation to Long Island’s natural limitations.”

It is with a cautious optimism that Long Islanders should embrace Cuomo’s initiative. At this point, any strategy to stop the decline in quality of our drinking water should be cheered, but it’s important for all involved–elected officials, policymakers, vested interests and the public–to keep these efforts grounded in reality.

What is the point of planning for Long Island’s future if the end result is just another study that will sit on a shelf? Worse, while the answers gather dust, the next generation of Long Islanders will be drinking dirty water–all because of our collective inability to do the right thing. We owe them a better future than that.

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 veteran master planner. Murdocco is a regular contributor to the Long Island Press. More of his views can be found on www.TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

Long Island Index’s Affordable Housing Strategy Comes Up Short

The multi-million-dollar New Village project has helped bring its downtown back to life but a high-density development won't cure all of Long Island's housing needs.

Recently, in a crowded conference room in Melville packed with developers, business leaders, municipal officials and other interested parties, the Rauch Foundation unveiled its latest Long Island Index report.

The principal finding of their effort, titled Long Island’s Needs for Multifamily Housing: Measuring How Much We Are Planning to Build vs. How Much We Need for Long Island’s Future, is that we will have a deficit of 72,000 housing units in “walkable mixed-use areas” by 2030. The research was conducted by the Regional Plan Association and HR&A Advisors, both groups based in Manhattan.

To this writer, the reception seemed less enthusiastic than in previous years, when the Rauch Foundation’s Long Island Index exhaustively detailed the region’s environmental, transit and housing challenges. Perhaps this report’s numbers-heavy findings were too much for those in attendance to digest.

The Index’s recommendations depend on supply driven housing economics. But their consultants’ analysis may not reflect the reality of Long Island’s suburban landscape, or what truly drives up housing costs here. For their solution to work, a lot depends on local zoning boards approving higher density.

During the presentation, one of the PowerPoints predicted that the increased supply will make housing more affordable, “assuming all new value created through rezoning is passed down to tenants through a reduction of rents.” But that’s no small assumption.

Did the creation of additional units in Queens, Brooklyn or Manhattan make any of those boroughs more affordable? Nobody would make that premise about New York City because they know better.

As the report outlines, is Long Island supposed to rezone large swaths of land to allow for 2,582 additional units in Hicksville, 377 additional units in the Village of Babylon, and 962 units within the Village of Valley Stream based on the mere assumption that the “value created” will trickle down to tenants? Did the addition of multifamily units make rents in Patchogue, the long-held bastion of smart growth, more affordable? At $1,992 a month for a 679-square foot, one bedroom apartment in New Village at Patchogue, no. Did the addition of units in Mineola make the already attractive area any more affordable? If $2,236-a-month-rent for a 486-square foot studio at Mill Creek’s Modera is any indication, no.

The Long Island Index’s report is out of whack considering the realities of housing within the region—and how really affordable housing is typically created.

In the more realistic scenario, public-private partnerships use tax subsidies to create affordable housing units. Private market developers produce units at differing price points to maximize profitability for their investors. Unless the proposed units are slated to be heavily subsidized, it is very likely that the residents in these areas are essentially being urged to relax their zoning density restrictions in order to maximize the profits of developers. When it comes to housing, trusting private development interests to create truly affordable housing is like letting the foxes watch the hen house.

For years, the Rauch Foundation has been the leader in depicting the Island’s problems and proceeding to present philosophical solutions that are easy to understand, but sometimes fantastical in nature. The key to the Long Island Index’s success is that it takes rather unsexy topics and packages them in a colorful, presentable manner—with some years having cutesy videos that outline Long Island’s economic stagnation. Great marketing and public outreach, yes, but those are weak fires in which to forge policy. This recent presentation was less flash and more numbers.

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In this instance, the big picture is so disconnected from the on-the-ground realities that the final product almost seems disingenuous. The Long Island Index’s goal of increasing density to foster more walkability and transit usage is laudable, but the pesky issue of actual commuting patterns gets in the way of the convenient, builder-driven narrative that has been fostered in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

According to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey, 88 percent of Suffolk County’s workforce uses automobiles to travel to work, with about 6 percent of workers taking transit, and 10 percent of Suffolk’s workforce heading to NYC for employment. There is little hope in creating the vibrant urbanized oases that they want. In Nassau, 77 percent of workers drive their cars to and from work and 16 percent of workers take mass transit. Maybe the prospects are better there. Plus, the presence of sewers makes development easier the more westerly you go. But even in Hicksville, as the report shows, the matter gets complicated due to private land ownership, zoning restrictions and what is often little discussed: the capacity of our infrastructure.

One issue that the Long Island Index and its pro-builder cohort seems to neglect is the viability of integrating these downtown environments within a larger, cohesive environment. As it stands, the Index is all for the creation of these artificial downtown environments without understanding their inherent isolation. Urban enclaves need to be interconnected in order to thrive. Think how the diverse neighborhoods of Manhattan’s Lower East Side merge into one another seamlessly. Downtown Patchogue and Mineola don’t blend in easily with their surroundings. These revitalized areas are essentially apartment buildings scattered within single-family-home neighborhoods.

Overall, the latest Long Island Index report repeats the same mantra that has been echoed from various conference rooms, board rooms, panels, and podiums at business breakfasts at the Crest Hollow Country Club and beyond: Build! Build! Build!

But to do so without taking into account the fundamental realities of Long Island’s housing market, our economy, our environmental limitations, and what our residents actually do on their daily commute, may work on paper, but it becomes a harmful prospect when it’s seriously being considered to direct policy.

We need a diverse group of stakeholders who think critically and constructively about our regional issues, not vested interests who always agree.

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 veteran master planner. Murdocco is a regular contributor to the Long Island Press. More of his views can be found on www.TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

Something Smells Rotten About the Latest Snafu at the Ronkonkoma Hub

Ronkonkoma Hub

Long Islanders may have to wait just a little longer if they were expecting transformative growth at the Ronkonkoma Hub.

The reason for the delay? Sewering—and the disingenuous attempts of regional planning being undertaken by Suffolk County.

The Ronkonkoma Hub, the darling project for many-a-smart growth advocates, may be one of the few projects on Long Island worth the praise it has received. It offers the opportunity for true intermodal access spanning the automobile, bus, train and airplane. Unlike other ambitious projects its size, this $538 million Hub has faced minimal NIMBY outcry from the surrounding area. While residents’ concerns about density still haunt the project, overall public support for the Hub has been snowballing from both civic leaders and municipalities since it was first pitched a few years ago.

College Match Quiz

In 2012, East Setauket-based Tritec development became the master developer for 50 or so acres around the ever-bustling Ronkonkoma train station. One of the region’s busiest commuter transit hubs, the site has long been viewed as an economic engine to power Suffolk County. Only recently has any real progress on this goal been seen. In 2014, the Brookhaven Town Planning Board adopted what’s called a form-based code to set an orderly template of growth. Last year the town board gave the green light to the first phase of development at the Hub, with 489 residential units slated for 10 acres. Progress, yes, but the approval came with the condition that the project would have a viable sewer connection.

Last October, a supposed regional planning alliance was formed between Brookhaven and Islip, the two towns where the Hub is located. At first glance, one would assume this partnership would have helped the project further along, but this hasn’t been the case.

Once again, the issue of sewers and the treatment of wastewater, which has plagued many Long Island projects, reared its ugly head.

The Town of Brookhaven had authored and adopted an Environmental Impact Statement that included a proposal for a $25 million sewer plant for the Hub project. Suffolk County accepted the concept, and the legislature approved the funding to make it a reality.

Since then, the county has apparently shifted its position. Now it claims it wants to build a seven-mile pipeline from the Ronkonkoma Hub site through the Village of Islandia (whose residents reportedly weren’t exactly pleased with the idea) to the Bergin Point Sewage Treatment Plant in West Babylon. From there, wastewater would be released three miles into the Atlantic Ocean via an aging outfall pipe. The county claims that its solution would save Suffolk’s already beleaguered taxpayers $2 to $3 million while shaving precious time off the ever-expanding construction timeline, now slated to take another decade.

Both Islip and Brookhaven were initially onboard, but state Sen. Tom Croci (R-Islip), a former Islip Town supervisor, proposed another pipeline path. His new route would essentially double the opportunity for growth within the township by offering more sewer infrastructure, but it would also more than double the cost from $24 million to $55 million.

“This alternate route would be much more expensive,” admitted Islip Town Councilwoman Trish Bergin-Weichbrodt, a Republican, at the March 2015 press conference held at Islip Town Hall to promote the new trajectory, “but the benefit would certainly be worth the buck.”

In Croci’s proposal, the extended sewer line would meander south through Oakdale and Sayville before hooking up with a connection to Bergin Point. While the idea sounds nice, no public officials involved with proposing the longer route provided details regarding how this expanded pipeline would be funded.

What is most vexing is why at this stage of the game is the answer to the wastewater issue not already understood, agreed upon and moving forward?

The county’s sewer solution seems to accommodate Tritec’s needs and little else. Not only does its proposed pipeline shortsightedly bypass MacArthur Airport, it skips any additional opportunities for regional growth beyond the Ronkonkoma Hub.  Sen. Croci’s route extension addresses these issues, but doubles the price point far beyond the original proposal as well as the county’s cheaper route.

From the regional perspective, Suffolk County, Islip and Brookhaven should decide together which of these three options is the most beneficial: a completely new wastewater treatment plant constructed at the Hub site  to discharge clean water back into the aquifer, which might also spur growth at nearby MacArthur Airport and its surrounding industrial areas; a quick-fix pipeline proposed by Suffolk County that bypasses the airport;  or Sen. Croci’s extended pipeline that snakes through various South Shore communities but comes with a hefty price tag and no promise of who foots the bill?

To further complicate matters, these pipeline proposals raise concern over the environmental impacts they would have, along with questions regarding the county’s intentions.

How to become a travel agent

What’s the point of creating new sewer infrastructure if we’re just going to move effluent from point A to point B? How will an ocean outfall pipe, which would prevent treated wastewater being absorbed back into the groundwater, affect nearby Lake Ronkonkoma? Further, can the area’s aging infrastructure accommodate the Hub’s needs, as well as the other completed and proposed sewer expansions in both Wyandanch and West Babylon? The treatment capacity at the Bergin Point sewer plant is being expanded to allow for additional growth, but will that be enough when all these projects pending approval are finally built?

The solution shouldn’t be left to political preference, but grounded in environmental data. So far, it seems that the county is more interested in finding a sewer option that would speed up development instead of balancing the need for economic growth and the protection of our natural resources.

The conflicting approaches to sewering at the Hub highlights the Island’s collective inability to think and act regionally while adding to the perception—warranted or not—that local governments too often seek only to accommodate the builders at the public’s expense.

It’s right to consider the Ronkonkoma Hub a transformative project because it has the potential to make a lasting difference not only on the Towns of Islip and Brookhaven, but on Long Island as a whole. It’s one of the best locations around for transit-oriented development because 42 percent of the LIRR’s total ridership uses the main line there. Why not harness its economic potential? But these squabbles about the sewering issue derails progress.

If the Suffolk’s intent was to speed up Tritec’s construction timeline, it failed.

If the administration truly wanted to engage in regional planning, they would have brought all the stakeholders to the table—the Towns, the Village of Islandia, local residents, Tritec and wastewater engineers—and worked on a realistic solution when the latest iteration of the project was first seriously considered in 2009. Instead, they took a relatively simply issue with a simple solution and complicated it tenfold. On the surface, they look like they were only trying to save money, but in practice it seems like they were working diligently to aid the developer, who in the end now has to sit tight and hold off construction until the dust settles.

Up to this point, the public hearings have been completed, deadlines have been met, and building plans have been reviewed by the Town of Brookhaven. The Town was reportedly ready to issue permits for the first phase of the project to begin once the sewering question, one of 22 other conditions outlined by the Town’s planning board as necessary for approval, was adequately addressed.

Now, while the 21 other planning board conditions are moving along, the sewer question still remains unanswered and the project’s formal groundbreaking postponed.

Regardless of whether or not the developer or the county caused the delay, the Ronkonkoma Hub project is now stopped dead in its tracks. Let’s hope a solution is coming soon to get everything moving again.

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 veteran master planner. Murdocco is a regular contributor to the Long Island Press. More of his views can be found on www.TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

(Photo rendering: Tritec development)

Enough With the Hype—Just Make Rental Apartments Available and Affordable

Long Island’s housing options are woefully inadequate, yet we’re doing little to address this ever-growing problem.

If you ask LI’s developers, they would say that the answer is the creation of developments that “meet the needs of seniors who are downsizing and young adults looking for more affordable rentals, as well as to create ‘vibrant’ destination communities that attract workers and retain young people,” as representative of Uniondale-based RXR Realty, Virginia-based AvalonBay Communities, Inc. and The Engel Burman Group in Garden City told the Long Island Regional Planning Council at a recent meeting in Hempstead.

That sounds good to any rational resident. On paper.

But nobody is talking about the rents in these developments, nor the marked disconnect between what is getting approved and built, as well as what this region truly needs to thrive: high-paying economic opportunities for the region’s eager and educated younger workforce, and housing they can actually afford.

The new rentals are telling. Avalon Bay claims it wants to provide housing options that will keep the Island’s millennials here. It charges $1,840 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in Coram, $2,670 a month for a one bedroom in Garden City or $2,748 a month for a one bedroom in Long Beach.

These rents are higher than most single-family home mortgages. For Avalon Pines in Coram to be considered “affordable,” which means less than 20 percent of the household income going toward rent, its occupants would need a combined income of $110,000 per year. And that’s to live in Coram, where the closest Long Island Rail Road train station is roughly six miles away.

Statistically, it’s unlikely that workers residing that far out east in Suffolk County would utilize the LIRR anyway to commute to Manhattan, but the developers still call it a walkable, transit-oriented community regardless. Avalon Huntington Station, about a mile from the train station, is charging $2,285 a month, which would require a joint salary of $135,000 for it to be considered “affordable.”

In 2013, the average rent in Suffolk for a one-bedroom was $1,490 a month, according to The New York Times, while the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says that the average fair market rent for a one-bedroom is $1,324. For the Nassau-Suffolk region, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom is $1,437. The average median family income for the region in 2015 was $109,000.

In western Suffolk, housing prices declined 12 percent in the wake of the recession from 2008 through 2013, while rents in one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments rose 19 percent. Nassau saw even larger price disparities. Housing prices declined by 7 percent, but rents went up 27 percent for one-bedroom apartments, and 28 percent for two-bedrooms. From 2011 to 2013, Long Island’s rents increased between 7 percent and 10 percent, yet housing prices only grew 3 percent to 4 percent.

Not to pick on Avalon Bay, but it is just one example of how many developers tout their desire to supply what the Island needs, yet the economics prevent them from doing it because it doesn’t make fiscal sense. To acknowledge the need for affordable workforce housing for the next generation and the elderly, while charging $1,840 a month to live 60 miles from New York City is ludicrous.

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Compare this situation to Queens. As the MNS Real Estate Services reported in December 2015, average rent in Astoria, complete with easy subway access and a more vibrant neighborhood than most suburban areas, was a mere $2,057 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, while Forest Hills and Rego Park came close with $2,014 and $2,038 respectably. Although familial ties to LI are strong for many young people who grew up here, is it worth their paying $750 a month more to live in Nassau County instead of renting in Queens, or should they just pay the $20 train ticket on the weekends to visit their parents?

Herein lies the problem. Developers and their vested nonprofit buddies often get so caught up in the convenient narrative that, yes, Long Island needs more multifamily housing projects, yet few actually build them at price points to suit the needs of our many young people who want to move out of their childhood homes. The Island needs more apartments, but few builders, if any, are actually building them for the markets they claim to be supplying.

Of course, builders don’t have it easy. From NIMBY protests over community fears that are sometimes legitimate and often imagined, LI’s development climate is difficult and easy at the same time.

But to grandstand to a regional planning group about what we need is wrong considering what they are providing. The LIRPC should be telling developers what housing options Long Island needs, not the other way around. For too long, planning efforts on the Island have been spearheaded by vested interests and specialized groups instead of serious data-backed study driven by public participation.

Further, the LIRPC should be taking more of a leadership role in confronting the economics of why, exactly, many of these developers are building projects with rents well above the median rent levels in Suffolk.

Instead of focusing on squeezing every bit of density into the last bastions of open space on the Island, the emphasis should be on how to repurpose our existing, underutilized disturbed sites to meet our region’s needs. The LIRPC must usher LI into a new economy that allows for sustainable economic growth by unifying the patchwork system of our Industrial Development Agencies, and stop trying to compete with Manhattan and the outer boroughs for apartments, and complement what the city has to offer.

By playing to Long Island’s strengths, instead of trying to urbanize Nassau and Suffolk here and there, we will get the jobs we need, and the housing options will follow.

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 veteran master planner. Murdocco is a regular contributor to the Long Island Press. More of his views can be found on www.TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.