Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Two decades after the bitter battle over Long Island's pine barrens, builders and environmentalists had little common ground when they sat down late last year to hash out the fate of Brookhaven's largest waterway - the historic Carmans River.
"It was more like going to a family wedding with a family you don't really like," said Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society.
After 90 grueling days of meetings with each side's backers and town staff working weekends on technical work for the next round of talks, a delicate deal was made Wednesday to protect the river.
"There are things I'm not thrilled about and I'm sure Dick feels the same way," said Mitchell Pally, chief executive of the Long Island Builders Institute. But Pally, who like Amper was a veteran of the pine barrens battle, said the past battle proved deals are possible.
"We all had a better sense of where people are coming from, what their needs are and what could be accomplished," he said.
What makes a clean Carmans crucial is that it runs 10 miles through the heart of Suffolk's largest town, feeding the Great South Bay, where a million-dollar effort is under way to restore a flagging clamming industry.
Suffolk's 1,535-acre South Haven Park, which borders the river's banks, was once a tycoons' sportsmen's club started by financier August Belmont. The Belmont Stakes horse race is named after him. Near the river's mouth, another former private hunting preserve is now the 2,556-acre Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge.
While some say the Carmans plan is like the 1993 legislation to protect the 70,000-acre pine barrens, that landmark initiative came after a bitter three-year court fight that tied up 234 projects worth $11 billion. What set the tone for the river study was Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko's insistence on a tight deadline after an earlier Carmans review stalled as 66 development proposals near the river piled up.
Kevin McDonald, the Nature Conservancy's Long Island policy director, said there was none of the "chest pounding" from the pine barren battle. "The benefit of the absurd time line is that everyone had to cut to the chase very quickly," he said.
What environmentalists get out of the plan is an enlarged 9,100-acre watershed area, which includes areas north of Middle Country Road. It also puts restrictions on nitrogen emissions and severe restrictions on building on about 1,400 acres closest to the river. Those restrictions would also affect the proposed downtown area, which would include an arena, hotel and shopping, envisioned as part of County Executive Steve Levy's Legacy Village project. Unaffected would be the project's 1,300 housing units.
Both sides also hope they have a workable plan for transferring development rights to move construction away from the river to other areas throughout Brookhaven. Such a transfer system exists, but has been little used in the pine barrens.
If the transfer development rights work, builders can construct multifamily housing in retail, business and light industrial areas. It will also enable the town board to consider four to nine units per acre, depending on whether builders are also rehabbing a blighted site, are near shopping, libraries, transit, or include affordable housing.
The new housing rules could bring in as many as 3,000 to 4,000 multifamily units townwide in the next decade, about 1,200 through transfer of building rights. The agreement also keeps alive the proposals for a downtown-type development on an old Kmart property in Middle Island and a 700-unit mixed-use project on the site of the former Parr Meadows racetrack in Yaphank.
Builders say they want to retool for the younger and older generations with lesser housing needs. "We'd rather build units than fight," said Pally. "We want to build the kind of housing people want and put it where they want it."
Amper said he is just relieved it's over. "I feel like I've lived at Brookhaven Town Hall for three months," he said, "And I don't even like to visit the place."