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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Dobie: Say-no mantra holds Long Island back

An illustration of the proposed Ruland Knolls rental

An illustration of the proposed Ruland Knolls rental housing development in Melville. The project would create 117 units of affordable housing, particularly for veterans. Credit: Newsday Files

Long Island makes development difficult. That's our reputation, and it's hard-won. For many residents and government leaders, rejection is like a muscle that needs frequent exercise. And we've been on quite a run.

Fights are being waged against an assisted living facility in Huntington, a day-care center in North Massapequa and luxury senior housing in East Hampton. Rental housing and affordable housing -- or worse, housing that's both -- face pitched battles pretty much everywhere. Heck, the Town of Hempstead said no to a Sonic fast-food restaurant in East Meadow after howls of protest from residents that it would increase traffic -- on Hempstead Turnpike.

The say-no mantra was proudly evoked by Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto at a recent meeting: "The trail to this town board is filled with would-be business owners and developers who never saw the light of day."

When the economy was humming along and most everyone was flush, when people young and old could see a future for themselves here, we could afford to say no. Not any longer.

Long Island has been stagnant for a while, and saying no is more problematic now because we're running out of time to deal -- seriously deal -- with our biggest problems. Such as building housing that is affordable for people at both ends of the age spectrum. Such as creating exciting downtowns that work in concert with cheaper housing to attract the young people the Island desperately needs. Such as fostering new businesses to increase our tax base.

And we need to string some successes together to show Long Islanders that the region can start growing again.

"The hope is you eventually reach a critical mass of successful local projects so people in other communities say, 'Hey, that's not so scary, I want a piece of that for us,' " said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. "That's what you hope for, but it's taking an awful lot of time."

It's important to note some good things have been happening. Villages such as Patchogue, Farmingdale and Westbury are being transformed by their willingness to build housing -- some rentals, some affordable, some with density -- near train stations in their downtowns. Huntington town, in a departure from form, approved a scaled-down version of AvalonBay's controversial high-density development in Huntington Station. A gauge of need: The town received 489 applications for the 43 affordable rental apartments.

Pitted against the successes are some head-scratching rejections. Huntington turned down a plan for 117 affordable rentals on Ruland Road in Melville, a matter headed for court because the units were meant to compensate for a lack of affordable housing at a previously built senior complex.

The Hempstead Town Board rejected a developer's request to change an approved luxury development in Island Park from mostly condominiums to mostly rentals, after neighbors absurdly complained that the renters -- paying up to $4,000 monthly -- would be "transients." The project would have cleaned up a brownfield. No wonder Long Island has the fewest active brownfield cleanups per capita in the state -- people worry about what comes next. Fear is a powerful motivator.

Residents think small. That's understandable. It's their neighborhood, their street, their house. Leaders need to think big. That's their job, their responsibility. It requires courage. It requires them to better sell why the vision benefits everyone. Sometimes, it requires expending political capital -- as Mayor Paul Pontieri did in Patchogue. His re-energized downtown -- where business vacancies have plunged from 50 percent to 6 percent and people are lining up for new apartments being built -- should be a model.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.