Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko at the Carmans River this past...

Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko at the Carmans River this past fall. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

More than just a local natural jewel, surprisingly little known beyond Brookhaven, the Carmans River is a key to the health of the Great South Bay. The river's headwaters make up about 17 percent of the bay's. So a new plan for preserving the Carmans corridor is important, not just for the town, but for the whole region.

The town board will soon be asked to approve that plan, developed by a study group called together by Supervisor Mark Lesko and led by veteran planner Lee Koppelman. It won't make everyone happy, because it's a compromise among the interests represented in the group, ranging from environmentalists to home builders. But it has more than enough good ideas to merit adoption and implementation.

The process that led to the plan mirrored the one that created the Pine Barrens Protection Act of 1993: tough conversations among groups that don't always agree and even distrust one another. And if the town board adopts it, the plan could come to be seen as almost as historic as the 1993 act.

Among its 25 recommendations, one has special relevance to the way Long Island must develop in the future: It would divert development out of the river's corridor, into downtown areas throughout Brookhaven. Studies have shown that too many 18- to 34-year-olds are moving off the Island. To slow that down, we need more of the kind of housing they want, reasonably priced rentals, especially in the kinds of places they prefer: downtowns with some buzz.

The plan would help by allowing developers to transfer their rights to develop land in the watershed and use those rights to build higher-density multifamily housing in nonresidential areas of downtowns. It comes with an intelligent scoring system. To get a good score, developers would have to build near community facilities, such as libraries, schools, parks, and retail. That promotes rental housing in walkable communities and gives developers some certainty about where they can build.

The town board should adopt it, without pulling out strands of the agreement and unraveling it. Then some state legislation would be needed to expand the core preservation area of the pine barrens, to include more land in the Carmans watershed. The town would also have to rezone some parcels to five-acre residential. A handful of farmers won't be happy, because they see upzoning as eroding the value of their land. Environmentalists and civic groups are unhappy that the plan does not derail some mega-projects in the area, such as Legacy Village, 1,000-plus housing units on county land in Yaphank.

That's the nature of compromise. But the plan has a lot to admire: acquiring open space, setting water quality goals and monitoring river water, and enacting requirements for controlling stormwater runoff, a major source of pollution in the bay. It's a complex, imperfect, but necessary blueprint for allowing development while protecting the river and the bay. The town should adopt the plan, and then remain energetic in the long, difficult process of implementing it.

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