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Closing the Door on Open Space

Posted on 31 October 2008

By Karl Grossman

Long Island real estate and pro-development interests, allied with a project at Dowling College, are seeking to stop the nationally-noted Suffolk County open space program.

For decades, Suffolk County government has been acquiring green spaces in order to prevent eastern Long Island from being sprawled over as has much of western Long Island. Thus the East End and portions of western Suffolk have been able to preserve pure water and viable ecoystems and remain places where people can have a good quality of life. And, the East End has been able to continue as a top tourist attraction.

But with little land left to bulldoze and build upon in western Long Island, real estate and pro-development forces have been seeking halt this effort.

They have found an ally at Dowling College in Oakdale whose president, Robert Gaffney, as former Suffolk County executive, let the county open space program stall. An early move: scuttling the county’s agreed-upon purchase of Robins Island.

Recalling last week the situation when he came into office in 2004, Mr. Gaffney’s successor, Steve Levy, said he found the county open space program “was dormant. We rejuvenated it. It’s a wise investment to preserve these properties and maintain our tourist industry and our quality of life. And, remember the public has supported the program in referendum after referendum.”

Set up at Dowling under the directorship of ex-Suffolk economic development commissioner Martin Cantor has been the Long Island Economic and Social Policy Institute. It received $20,000 from real estate and pro-development groups to do a report on the Suffolk open space program. They are: Long Island Board of Realtors, Long Island Builders Institute, Commercial Industrial Brokers, and Association for a Better Long Island. And, no surprise, it issued a report this month scoring the program, describing it as too expensive in these tough economic times.

The reaction of environmentalists and others has been intense.

“It’s incredible that real estate developers who are responsible for the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression and who paid for this propaganda should try to halt open space preservation on Long Island which has been supported at referendum more than three dozen times by overwhelming margins,” said Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society.

Stephen Jones, chief executive officer of the Suffolk County Water Authority and a longtime Suffolk planner, said “the so-called ‘study’ is not worthy of an institution of higher learning.”

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said “it’s clear that the developers are trying to steal taxpayers’ preservation money so they can continue over-development.”

Brookhaven Conservative Party Chairman Richard Johannesen scored the relationship between developers and Mr. Gaffney. “At Dowling,” charged Mr. Johannesen, “he’s returning to his developer pals to raise money…At least he’s consistent.”

State Assemblyman Steven Englebright said: “We must not allow this misinformation campaign to stampede a reversal of science-based public land use policy that ensures protection for regional drinking water, our quality of life, and the ultimate value of our homes. These developers should be ashamed that they are attempting to exploit fears generated by this economically difficult moment.”

Even Newsday, which doesn’t always champion green causes, called the report “a one-dimensional document done for an industry hungry for buildable land.” The Newsday editorial continued that the study doesn’t “analyze the benefits” of preservation including “the avoided costs of government services” caused by development.

The report was a factor in almost getting the Suffolk Legislature not to move this month on an open space acquisition in Montauk. Funding a report is new for Long Island pro-development and real estate interests. They usually corrupt the governmental process with campaign contributions. This needs to be closely watched as they conduct their newest drive to pave over Long Island.

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