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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Dobie: New housing need not hurt water supply

Developer Michael Kelly is using green concepts in

Developer Michael Kelly is using green concepts in the building of the Riverwalk housing development in Patchogue. Among them are pavers that let water through, and a winding walkway that allows trees to spread wider roots. Credit: Newsday/Michael Dobie

I've written often about two great debates roiling Long Island: the need for alternatives to single-family homes and the need to protect our water.

Both are economic imperatives. And they're often considered antithetical pursuits.

The first requires more development. The second traditionally requires less.

But it's possible to do both. And we should. It's a matter of building in the right places and in the right way.

First: location. Let's try to build as much as possible where we've already built, not on undeveloped land.

More pavement and more structures mean more runoff, and that water takes with it bacteria, fertilizers, pesticides, oil and lots of other junk right into our waterways. That's why so many beaches and shellfishing areas are closed after storms. Some 17 percent of the nitrogen in the Great South Bay comes from runoff.

Water that soaks into the ground, on the other hand, is filtered by sand and gravel on its way to those waterways. Much of it reaches our aquifers, replenishing our only source of drinking water.

So we need to consider that ground as precious, and prioritize rebuilding over building new. What does that mean?

It means blight is not a problem, it's an opportunity. So are abandoned buildings. And unused parking lots, old cement plants and vacant dairies. The great masters painted over old canvasses; we can recycle, too.

That's how Patchogue was transformed. It's what is happening in Wyandanch and, soon, with the Ronkonkoma Hub.

Second: we need to be environmentally smart as we rebuild. It's called green infrastructure management, and there are many ways to do it.

Permeable pavement allows water to seep through instead of sloughing it off to storm drains. Green roofs use plants on rooftops to retain water with the side benefits of cooling the building in summer and insulating it in winter. Bio-retention basins and bioswales -- think ditches filled with vegetation -- capture storm water runoff and promote its natural filtration.

These methods have not been incorporated into many municipal codes, but they have been used in some public projects -- such as a permeable pavement parking lot at the Lindenhurst library and a green roof on a science building at SUNY Old Westbury.

AvalonBay Communities LLC used permeable pavers at a 349-unit Rockville Centre rental complex. Tritec Real Estate Co. used the pavers in Patchogue and plans bioswales and roof gardens for the Ronkonkoma Hub, with as many as 1,450 units.

One of the most ambitious green undertakings is the Riverwalk condominium complex on the site of the old Clare Rose distribution facility in Patchogue. Developer Michael Kelly is using permeable pavers to make a walkway along the Patchogue River and added a landscaped median on West Street to retain water. An underground drainage system keeps water on-site and pushes the excess into a bio-retention area near the walkway.

And a public path bisecting the development is curvy, not straight, allowing for the planting of larger trees whose root structures stabilize the soil and reduce runoff.

Such innovations cost money, ever the bane of private development, but Kelly estimated their added costs were around $5,000 per unit for condos that average about $325,000. On the theory that everyone has a role to play here, it seems a reasonable price to pay. And, indeed, Kelly says sales are active.

Water and shelter. We need both. If we stop playing them against each other, we'll get what we need.