McConnell, the Yaphank civic leader, said that Lesko “got blindsided because he thought he had included the communities, that he had reached out to them and that he had held public meetings…. The public had an opportunity to come to every study group [and] technical session and speak. Dr. Koppelman was always fair. He always asked the people sitting there: ‘Do you have any comments? Do you have any concerns? Speak them now.’ And people did!”
Lesko says the plan was done in by a smear campaign.
“If elected officials engaged in misinformation campaigns like the one that Maryanne Johnston has engaged in on the Carmans River, they would be indicted,” exclaims Lesko. “This is some of the most irresponsible fear-mongering I’ve experienced as a sitting town supervisor. I have no problem disagreeing with people, I respect them if they disagree with me, and I respect them if they’re knowledgeable. I have a problem with people who intentionally misrepresent what the plan proposed and do it in a way that fans emotions among the public based upon that misunderstanding. Maryanne Johnston was at every meeting, so it is again an absolute misrepresentation to say that this was done behind closed doors!”
Koppelman sees a lost opportunity.
“As soon as that plan was finished, I suggested strongly that we immediately start the process in terms of getting the plan accepted so that legally the process could continue,” says Koppelman, looking back. “And that’s when the separate meetings started to take place. If the supervisor had put it on the [town board] agenda at that time, even if the builders and the environmentalists would have bitched, at least the process could have gone forward.”
McConnell recalls the passage of the Pine Barrens Act two decades ago for inspiration. “When the act finally passed, the developers and the environmentalists both gave in on something for the betterment of the community,” she says. “We would never have the act that we have now—saving 100,000 acres—if those two groups could not have come together for a compromise.”
Amper would no doubt agree with her on the value of compromise but not on her solution for the river.
“You’re not preserving it by up-zoning,” he says. “If you put it into the Pine Barrens core, it’s protected with the full faith of the State of New York.”
Jim Tripp, senior counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund and chairman of the Pine Barrens Credit Clearing House, says there’s a rationale for rejuvenating the Pine Barrens credit program because in Brookhaven as of Oct. 20, 2011, 464 credits have been issued but only 230 had been redeemed.
“The success of the program depends not only on the issuance of Pine Barrens credits but their redemption. And the redemption rate is too low,” Tripp says.
A top state environmentalist with no direct connection to the Pine Barrens Commission says, “The credit program isn’t stagnant, but there is a concern that towns should not approve higher housing densities without requiring the redemption of Pine Barrens credits.”
“By requiring the redemption of credits, they’ll make the program even stronger,” the official adds.
“To me the transfer development rights is not the most effective system,” says Koppelman. He said the program “doesn’t work unless you’re transferring within the same school district. As soon as you transfer rights from one school district to another, the potential receiving area becomes a political campaign. And that’s exactly what happened.”
In his view the builders saw an opening and took it.
“Knowing that [the transfer of development rights] is not that effective, they said, ‘Well, if the environmentalists are going to get an extension of the Pine Barrens, we want as a matter of right [Koppelman’s emphasis] that automatically when we pick a site we don’t have to go through a zoning change and all the nonsense and ten years later we still don’t have approval.’ So in other words, if the environmentalists were going to get something, then the builders wanted to get something, too,” Koppelman says.
“I disagree with the supposition that there was no community input,” says Mitch Pally of the Long Island Builders Institute, who wrestled with his environmentalist counterpart, Amper, on the details of the transfer of development rights in the study group proposal. He says the town doesn’t have enough receiving sites for Pine Barrens credits as it is, but with the new road map “they have basically given up on working that issue,” he says. “The politics are very difficult when you have council districts and two-year term limits, and Brookhaven has both!
“Young people don’t want the single-family homes anymore, they want multi-family housing on the main roads and the downtowns, and that’s what we’re trying to accomplish,” says Pally. Under the study group plan, the town board would have approved the receiving sites before the planning board would have been involved.
That loss of control was seized by some of the council members who opposed the study group’s plan.
“It takes the most important power of the town board away from it and that is the ability to change zones,” says Councilwoman Keppert. “That is our most important power. It is the power of the elected representative. It shouldn’t be ceded to special interest groups and that’s what we were doing.”
“All I was trying to do was save a river,” Lesko told the crowd at the March 29 hearing.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is keeping a close watch on the plan.
“Obviously we have a significant investment in the Carmans,” says Peter Scully, the DEC Long Island regional director. “We manage the trout hatchery, we stock the river. We administer the Wild Scenic and Recreational River system and this river is so designated. We have a real interest in the process and we will continue to monitor the situation closely. At the end of the day, the initiative appears to have fallen victim to an inability on the part of local government to reach consensus. Hopefully, they will break that logjam and agree on the appropriate way to provide stronger protections for the river.
“Compared to other rivers, the Carmans River is in fairly good shape,” Scully says. “There are threats to it but the general quality of the water is relatively high.”
Lesko doesn’t want a repeat of the Forge River.
“We can see all throughout Long Island examples of what will happen to that river inevitably if we don’t take steps now to protect it,” says Lesko. “The Forge River is essentially a dead river. Virtually nothing is living in the river because of the nitrogen levels.”
Swesty of Trout Unlimited agreed that Carmans River is “certainly cleaner than the Forge but at this point this is not a pristine river.” He wants a stringent water quality standard to regulate nitrate levels in the river.
“The groundwater has been seriously compromised,” he says. “There’s good peer review science that shows that you begin to suffer damage to aquatic vertebrate communities.”
Kevin McAllister, the Peconic Baykeeper, served on the study group and voted against the final draft because it omitted his preference for a stringent nitrogen standard.
“If we’re serious about protecting the Carmans River, there has to be constraints on the amount of development that occurs and new development has to incorporate state-of-the-art wastewater treatment,” he says. “We have an opportunity for a do-over here and I hope that everybody will be committed to an above-board, transparent process that again prioritizes water quality protection.”
And so the fate of the Carmens is unclear.
“What’s going to happen to Long Island when they don’t have clean groundwater anymore because they don’t control where and how our development happens?” warns John McNally, environmental program officer and communications director at the Rauch Foundation, a not-for-profit group that produces the Long Island Index. “As long as the needs of a few continue to outweigh the needs of the many, that’s the way it’s going to be. The region as a whole has a tremendous need for affordable, mixed-use housing but if every single community decides that it doesn’t want to carry that burden, and as long as there’s no real leadership on these issues, we’re basically sealing our fate as a region that’s in decline.”
And that’s what’s really riding on the Carmans River.