Myriad Issues Face Long Island Today

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At 118 miles long and encompassing 1,400 square miles, Long Island is not only the longest island in the contiguous United States but the largest as well. It is larger than the state of Rhode Island, when you include the two New York City boroughs—Brooklyn and Queens—that are located on the island’s western end. (When I first left Long Island to attend college about as far upstate as one can get without crossing the Canadian border, I learned that some people do not consider Brooklyn or Queens to be part of Long Island. Those same geographically challenged people were usually from Brooklyn or Queens.)We have no shortage of people here on Long Island. We are one of the most densely populated regions in the country. The 7.6 million Long Islanders comprise 39 percent of the total population of New York State.

If Long Island was a state—an idea that has been bandied about in my lifetime—it would be the 12th most populated state in the union. If it were a country, Long Island would be the 96th most populated nation in the world. Now we’re “tawking”!

Of course, those huge population numbers have come with a high price. Among Long Island’s claims to fame is being a poster child for suburban sprawl.

We are probably most well-known as being the home of the first large-scale suburban area in the United States. The housing tract called Levittown, built between 1947 and 1951 on what was once Long Island’s prairie, the Hempstead Plains, was settled by returning war veterans and became the prototype of mass-produced housing. Commercial development needed to sustain the cookie-cutter grid of single-family homes was laid out in the form of strip malls.

The end result was nightmarish traffic, incredible property tax bills (so much for the idea that development increases the tax base and lowers property taxes), and a loss of small village identities. Merrick, Bellmore, Wantagh, and Seaford all morphed into one long, seemingly endless commercial corridor along Sunrise Highway and Merrick Road. The latter resulted in what some have coined a loss of an area’s “sense of place.”

Less visible, and possibly more serious impacts in the long run, are those associated with our sole-source aquifer. Some people might argue that groundwater issues were not well understood back in the 1960s and 1970s, when landfills were constructed on the groundwater divide (East Hampton and Southampton) or on salt marshes adjacent to economically valuable bays (Merrick). And when large areas of Nassau County and western Suffolk County were sewered, with the poorly treated wastewater being piped to the ocean and bay.

I don’t buy that.

Was anyone surprised that pumping millions of gallons of drinking water per day, sending it to homes and businesses, collecting the wastewater and piping it out to sea was not going to lower the water table? Many of western Long Island’s freshwater ponds and creeks, and their associated flora and fauna, were sacrificed.

These were politically motivated decisions based on short-term economics, the game plan being a sort of “kick the can down the road and let someone else make the tough decisions” approach. We are paying dearly for that attitude today.

On the other side of the coin, we have Long Island’s geographic location on the North American coastal plain, on the boundary between two major ecological zones: the Canadian zone to the north and the Carolinian zone to the south. Here, we can find many northern species of flora and fauna at their southern limit, and many southern species at the northernmost point of their range. What does this mean? Long Island has the highest density of rare plants and animals in New York State.

Many of us feel that Long Island still has enough unique natural attributes worth fighting for. Naturalists Robert Villani from Merrick and John Turner from Massapequa have both written excellent books describing Long Island’s amazing natural history. Hurricane Sandy and recent research on our bays by Stony Brook University have both highlighted many of our planning and development mistakes. Coastal erosion task forces and a Clean Water Partnership have formed to address some of these important issues.

Will we learn from our mistakes, make the right decisions based on the long term, and change course? The past year has seen calls for seawalls, building dunes in the ocean intertidal zone, a reluctance to admit the mistake of building on the primary dune and correcting it, a call for upgrading sewage treatment plants but a continuation of piping to sea, and the cry “but who’s going to pay for it?” with regard to correcting dysfunctional septic systems.

It does not look promising.

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