When I first heard that Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone was making Long Island’s water quality the number one priority of his administration, I was skeptical. And rightfully so. In the past I’ve argued that Long Island is entering the “age of the mega-project.”
As I wrote this past December:
Long-stalled projects within the Town of Islip (and across Long Island) are getting new life thanks to pro-growth government incentives, focused implementation and the perceived growing acceptance of multi-family developments. What once seemed impossible to build in a suburban setting is now being proposed with new zeal, paired with ample mention of this column’s favorite terms: “smart growth” and “brain drain.” Add to these the need for “housing for Long Island’s young professionals,” and any project long debated, no matter how large in size and scope, now will get a second look.
Growth isn’t always necessarily a bad thing, but it’s critical for the region that it’s enabled in a responsible and balanced manner.
To argue for regional water protection during a very pro-growth regional development climate seemed like a hollow gesture. How can groundwater be protected effectively if high-density sprawl is being promoted time and time again?
It turns out that I was wrong.
On Monday evening, the county executive’s office, along with representatives from the Suffolk County Water Authority, Suffolk County Planning Commission and Rauch Foundation (who financially supports the regional water protection effort and consortium of environmental groups spearheading the effort), hosted a live-teleconference call with the goal of bringing the public into the process, and spreading awareness on the challenges Suffolk faces. The event was a sincere effort to inform the residents of the County of the growing water quality issues and educate on the efforts to reverse the decline in quality.
The talking points were surprisingly both honest and accurate, and to my surprise, echoed many of the arguments made in my work (perhaps they are fans of The Foggiest Idea?). The call was interactive, with live-polling. Granted, the audience was a bit biased – asking if water quality is important to residents on a conference call regarding water quality is a bit redundant.
Most appreciated were the resident questions, which allowed for an open dialogue that didn’t degenerate into bedlam. Many residents asked about sewers, private wells and septic tank upgrades. After hearing the nature of the questions, I’ve found that the main challenge for the county moving forward is public education on Long Island’s groundwater issues.
A refreshing approach to a decades-old problem
In June of 2012, I wrote an op-ed for Newsday that called for further integration of technology and social media in local government. I wrote:
The planning process should always be transparent, and now, we have tools not only to ensure that transparency, but that it occur in real time, as the process unfolds. Planning also feeds off input, and it’s more successful if members of the public are wholly engaged. What better platforms than Twitter or Facebook to actively involve community members in the important policy decisions of the day?
With development on Long Island, it is very easy to become jaded and cynical. However, it is important to recognize successes that are indicative of a larger progress. Water quality on Long Island has been a key land use issue since 1978, when the groundbreaking Federal 208 study was conducted. The study identified many of the issues that are coming to light, and proposed land-use solutions which set the stage for future water protection efforts.
It is refreshing to see county government actively embrace digital platforms to help spread public awareness of this critical policy issue. Nassau County should be as actively engaged in the discussion of aquifer protection as Suffolk is. In Suffolk, the legacy of planning is strong, with county policies setting precedents for open space preservation and water protection in suburban areas nationwide. Often, I say that protection of Long Island’s aquifers needs a solution that is regional in scope and comprehensive in execution.
With public outreach and education being presented as it was last night, we’re off to an encouraging start.