The new Carmans River plan is a win-win-win for Long Island. It protects a lovely and environmentally important waterway, while promoting the development of affordable housing in commercial areas only. At the same time, it points the way to better planning for Long Island. For decades our region has stood as a national model of how not to build. We sprawled across our Island, ate up our open spaces, degraded our waterways, and created unbearable traffic. Meanwhile, we failed to build the homes we needed for young people and seniors, and left our once-vibrant downtowns to decay. The Carmans River plan reverses that disastrous trend.

  • It bans development in 2,100 acres of sensitive watershed.
  • It permits transfer of development rights from this area into areas currently zoned commercial or industrial, not residential, maintaining the suburban character we love and incentivizing the mixed use development we need.
  • It defines, in certain terms, what affordable housing is...80% of the area's median income.  No longer will a home that costs up to 120% of the area's median income be deemed 'affordable'.

The pact shows what planning should look like--in terms of both product and process. Our whole Island needs to shift building away from residential areas and into downtowns; from single-family homes to affordable multi-family homes.

Our zoning codes should help make that happen. They need to be more pro-active. Instead of just specifying what we don't want built, our codes should promote what we do want.

The Carmans River plan, for example, provides incentives to locate housing close to railroad stations and supermarkets, so as to produce lively, walkable communities. The plan also provides incentives to site projects near existing sewage facilities.

True, the plan grew out of a unique set of circumstances, which don't easily translate to other situations. Environmentalists intent on protecting the Carmans River and developers seeking to build in the area were on a collision course when Brookhaven Town Supervisor Mark Lesko brought them together in a study group aimed at finding common ground. The process was facilitated by the government, but much of the negotiating took place face-to-face between the stakeholders.

Such face-to-face interaction has been shown in other regions to be crucial to success. To negotiate with people you have to figure out where they're coming from; in the process opposing sides usually grow less intransigent, not more. And you end up with a product that best reflects the diverse stakeholders' most important needs.

Most zoning codes don't involve stakeholders in this way, and don't benefit from the give and take.

Forward-thinking planning boards do their best to accommodate the community's disparate needs. But there are real advantages to engaging stakeholders in direct give-and-take. Their input improves the final product, and their participation generates wider support for the specific plans, and often a commitment to tackle other regional problems.

This is not just a nice theory. The Carmans River plan proves how well it works.