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Source: Long Island Business News

Suffolk Legislature wades into water debate

BY DAVID WINZELBERG

Posted: September 12, 2011
Originally Published: September 2, 2011

Long Island’s development community dodged a bullet when the Suffolk County Legislature voted to exert control over a draft plan for water management developed by the county health department last week. But angry environmentalists are advocating for the plan they describe as a “call to action” to save the Island’s water supply.

The draft plan included recommendations aimed at reducing wastewater from septic systems, recommendations that would severely limit development where sewers don’t exist, which comprises about 80 percent of the county.

If the Legislature hadn’t acted to assert authority over the plan, the health department could have implemented new regulations on residential and commercial zoning and curtailed development in many areas. Warning of rising levels of nitrogen in the county’s ground water, the health department plan suggests one way to fix the problem is to require larger lots for homes and commercial buildings that can’t hook up to a sewer system and wastewater treatment plant. That requirement would likely end homebuilding on any parcel smaller than an acre in areas without sewers.

Homebuilders, already decimated by the recession, would be further impacted by the health department’s plan, according to their chief advocate, Mitch Pally, who heads the Long Island Builders Institute.

“The recommendations in the draft plan were very draconian in relation to the negative affect it would have on the real estate industry,” Pally said.

Environmentalists, however, view the water management plan as an important step in protecting the aquifers that provide the Island’s drinking water. Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said the Legislature is off base in its effort to control the health department’s water protection program. She said the department used trained professionals and scientists to formulate its water plan and the Legislature should heed its dire warnings that the Island’s drinking water would be compromised without the plan.

“The Legislature seems to think they’re public health experts,” Esposito said. “Sadly, that’s not true.”

The dispute over safe water policy is part of an age-old battle on Long Island, Esposito said. “The developers don’t want to recognize that we are vulnerable and that we have a finite water supply,” she said.


Suffolk Legis. Tom Cilmi, who sponsored the bill that reins in the health department from implementing the water management plan on its own, said the department has been “regulating through edict for years” without legislative input. He said the burden of onerous regulations like those recommended in the water management plan was a big reason New York is “ranked near the bottom of the pile in terms of business-friendly environments.”

Cilmi said the health department was overreaching its authority. “The policy-making branch is the Legislature,” he said, “not the health department.”

If the water plan were implemented, there could be expensive legal ramifications for Suffolk. Pally, an attorney who specializes in land-use issues, said if a larger lot size is required the county could be sued by property owners who won’t be able to get the highest and best use of their land, as stipulated in land-use law. And if property is rendered unbuildable by the water protection efforts, it is effectively useless and the county, due to legal precedence, could eventually be forced to take the land through costly condemnation.

The bill is awaiting County Executive Steve Levy’s signature, but Esposito said the health department’s water plan won’t be ignored.

“It’s a first call to action and that’s what we’re going to use it for,” she said. “Protection of drinking water shouldn’t be a political battle. It should be a public health concern.”