In what the participants lauded as a watershed moment in protecting Long Island's environment, Brookhaven and other government officials joined environmentalists Wednesday to outline an agreement for preserving the pristine Carmans River.
Standing on town parkland by the river in Yaphank, Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko announced the town was forming a Carmans River Study Group to develop guidelines for protecting the river from polluting development. Currently there is no special protection for private land bordering the 10-mile stream.
The study group will have 90 days to draft a Carmans River Watershed Protection Plan to be considered by the town board. During that time, Lesko said the town will not give final approval to any of about 30 proposed development projects near the river.
"Today is a historic day in the Town of Brookhaven," Lesko said. "We need to protect this river. The lessons of the [heavily polluted] Forge River have taught us that. We must get this done as soon as possible."
The study group will comprise town and state officials, members of the Long Island Pine Barrens Commission, environmentalists and representatives of a builders' group. It will develop a scientifically based map of the river's watershed area and recommend protection strategies.
The chairman of the group, Lee Koppelman, director of Stony Brook University's Center for Regional Policy Studies, said the strategies would include acquiring open land, toughening zoning and building codes, and requiring treatment of sewage and capturing runoff so no additional pollution reaches the river. "Right now it's reasonably pristine - about as close as you can get to a natural system," he said.
Study group member Bob Wieboldt, a lobbyist for the Long Island Builders Institute, said a goal of zero pollution may be too stringent and a hardship on property owners. Minor amounts that will not degrade water quality would be better, he said. He added that the 90-day moratorium on project approvals was reasonable.
While they agreed on the goal of protecting the river, Lesko and environmentalists have been at odds on how to best do that for almost two years.
Until Lesko agreed to the new plan, "the environmental community was concerned that we couldn't get a scientifically defensible watershed boundary, that the Carmans River corridor would be developed before a plan could be put in place and that environmental and civic leaders would be excluded from the planning process," said Dick Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society.
Initially, Lesko wanted the town to handle the protection issues on its own and resisted any suspension of development approvals. But after state Department of Environmental Conservation regional director Peter Scully proposed in January the plan ultimately adopted Wednesday, Lesko said he consulted with experts and "it became clear to me . . . we need to do this as quickly as possible based upon hard, scientific guidance."
The supervisor called the river agreement possibly "the most important environmental development" in the area since the Long Island Pine Barrens Act curbed development in 1993. Amper wouldn't go that far, but did call it "the biggest environmental initiative since the Community Preservation Fund on the East End" in 1999 allowed real estate tax funds to pay for open space acquisition.