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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Dobie: Long Island struggles to shape its future

There is no one problem, no one cause

There is no one problem, no one cause and no one solution for Long Island's problems. Credit: Tribune Content Agency / Donna Grethen

The battle for Long Island's future is underway. It's actually been raging for several years. But now more people are paying attention.

At its root, it's a struggle between competing visions, articulated over and over at public hearings when new developments are proposed.

Long Island is stagnant and slowly dying, one group of voices says, as it pleads for change. This group is answered by those who extol the virtues of the Island they found when they moved here; they might agree that we have problems, but they fear change as a threat to that treasured way of life.

The debate is heating up, fueled by several large proposed developments. No matter which side you take, be wary of anyone who says this one thing is the problem and here is THE solution.

There is no one problem, no one cause, and no one solution. It's way more complicated and devilishly intertwined than various interest groups would have you believe.

But there are some things we all can agree on as a framework for debate:

We have problems at both ends of our age spectrum. Our young people are leaving and our senior citizens are struggling.

We don't have enough of the kinds of housing that would help either group, and plans to add to what we do have often run aground.

We don't have enough good jobs that pay good salaries. (We also lack jobs with great salaries, but that's a different story and one less important to the Island's immediate future.)

Taxes are too high, and with salaries and contributions for pensions and health care strangling municipal and school budgets, controlling costs has meant spending less on basic infrastructure, social services and beloved extras (parks, school music and arts programs, etc.).

We're not addressing any of this in a truly regional way.

It's a toxic stew. Debating the facts is hard enough. Then emotion ratchets up the degree of difficulty, especially when blended with nostalgia. You see it play out in the desperate fights waged by parents to keep schools open in the face of plunging enrollments, despite the clear and significant tax savings that would result -- savings many of those same parents clamor for.

I'll be writing about this battle for our future in the coming months, and we'll look deeper at the many competing parts of this intricate puzzle.

For now, let's talk a little about our young.

As Billy Joel sang, they're moving out. Long Island has lost more than 12 percent of its 25- to 34-year-olds since 2000, while that population increased nationally by nearly 3 percent. That's a significant disparity.

Why focus on them? They're our future. They're the ones you would expect to buy the single-family homes our senior citizens and baby boomers are looking to unload. They're the ones whose children would end up in our schools. Couple that with recent reports that suggest that young people nowadays are less likely than their predecessors to want to move back to the suburbs, even after they have kids, and you have a major problem in the making.

Part of the issue is the lack of jobs here. Part of it is the lack of housing young people prefer, especially housing near train stations. Part of it is that young adults are having children later in life. Part of it is that many just prefer cities, and New York City has become a safer and more attractive option.

We can wait to see whether that group eventually embraces the traditional cycle of leave-and-return as it ages, and whether the next group flees at a similar rate. Or we can take some initiative and start reshaping Long Island.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.



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