Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
It may have been the oddest debate in the history of Suffolk County government.
When the Council on Environmental Quality last week took up the county's new Comprehensive Master Plan, a blueprint to take Suffolk through the year 2035, the county's own planners argued that it shouldn't be subject to any environmental review.
"Its ideas and concepts are general," said DeWitt Davies, chief environmental analyst. He and chief planner Andy Freleng emphasized that the recommendations in the 60-page plan are not binding, do not have direct budget implications and don't mandate any direct action regarding land use.
"You can't go into detail in such a small document," Davies said.
The state's general municipal law requires that "a county comprehensive plan . . . shall be subject to the provisions of the State Environmental Quality Review Act," noting such plans could even "be designed to serve as a . . . generic environmental impact statement."
County planning staff argued that the act does not mandate an intense environmental review. In the jargon of the state law, they said it should be listed as a "Type 2 Action, with a negative declaration," meaning no further review is needed. The council ultimately followed the recommendation.
Davies, who once worked for master planner Lee Koppelman, said the new plan is simply a "way to get the discussion going."
The new plan, the first update of Suffolk's original master plan completed in 1970, has germinated for more than four years.
Former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy argued that the new master plan was largely complete before he left office in 2011. But since then it has undergone repeated revisions, reflecting concepts that County Executive Steve Bellone is using as major planks in his re-election campaign this fall.
CEQ member Larry Swanson, a Stony Brook University marine scientist, expressed concern that developers and builders will use the plan as a way to simply advocate for more growth, saying, "We're just following the plan."
Swanson noted that the plan estimates Suffolk's population, now 1.5 million, will grow by 130,000 by 2035. But it provides no critical assessment of whether the county, its infrastructure or its water supply can handle that kind of population growth without adverse impact.
"What seems to be going on [is] that you're doing everything you can to destroy the tourism industry by way of developing the Island," he argued.
Swanson said recommendations to increase sewering do nothing to assess the impact of more intense growth he predicted would follow.
"We'll just go from homes on 1-acre to half-acre zoning, and the Island can't handle that many people," he said.
Others said the handling of the master plan follows the same tack county health officials recently took with the county's 1,000-plus-page Comprehensive Water Quality Plan, for which they said no further environmental review was needed.
Dan Gulizio, executive director of the Peconic Baykeeper, a nonprofit environmental group, said "we're glad the county is undertaking a comprehensive plan."
But Gulizio said the proposed master plan needs further scrutiny. "And the best way to do it is with an environmental-impact statement and we'd like to see them do it," he said.