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NY can avert an economic collapse

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In a strategic move designed to give Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo every legal weapon at his disposal to confront the COVID-19 pandemic, New York’s current state of emergency will have to be extended and broadened after the pandemic wanes if the state and Long Island expect to escape the fast-approaching economic crisis. That includes overriding local zoning control now in the hands of local officials.

While Nassau and Suffolk counties are conducting an economic survey to establish the extent of the coronavirus harm, Long Island zoning authorities will be the determining force as to whether the region rises from this charred economic landscape in a post-COVID-19 world. Simply put, effective zoning will equal economic recovery.

Long insulated from the dynamic forces of the marketplace, and the needs of changing demographics, many Long Island town and village zoning authorities have often based decisions on a simple political equation: “Does this help or hurt us at the polls?” The question, however, is whether zoning officials will recognize what needs to happen to ensure Long Island’s economic survival. The traditional NIMBY reactions to development applications should still be heard and considered, but in a world where the economy has cratered, developers and businesses won’t have the luxury or interest to wait years for approvals. 

Cuomo’s disaster declaration suggests he has the power to amend or suspend regulations, so long as those actions directly assist the state in its disaster response; it is clear that COVID-19 already has created an economic disaster for the Empire State.

We have precedent for this: After superstorm Sandy, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed an order suspending zoning codes to help rebuild the battered Rockaways. The document Bloomberg signed said partly: “Pursuant to the powers vested in me by Paragraph g of Subdivision 1 of Section 24 of the New York Executive Law to suspend any local laws, ordinances, or regulations, or parts thereof, which may prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in coping with a disaster or recovery therefrom whenever the Governor has declared a State Disaster Emergency, I hereby suspend ... provisions of the Zoning Resolution as described in this Section.” 

Today, Cuomo’s sweeping powers reach sectors that range from elections to business practices. The state of emergency order is silent on the issue of taking control of local zoning, but if local towns and villages are incapable or unwilling to participate in economic recovery, he should use his legal authority to protect the region’s future.

An alternative would be his designation of specific and targeted economic empowerment zones where state authority would permit development that would generate prompt investment of tens of millions of dollars in new construction, encourage transit-oriented development, and provide the markets with confidence that there will be state-designated areas where approvals would be prompt and welcomed.

It long has been an unpleasant truth quietly accepted by many in the business community that the political landscape would dictate what economic development would be permitted to take root. Towns and villages on Long Island grudgingly accepted unique proposals such as transit-oriented development, but it came with caveats, a list of limits and restrictions, and more than a little malice. Those days are over.

If Long Island towns and villages can’t, or won’t, allow for the type of development that will be required to put the region back on its feet after the coronavirus, then the governor needs to prevent the state’s economic future from being among the victims of COVID-19.

Thomas Conoscenti, an economist and educator, is past director of economic research for the Long Island Association.