Over-Development & Poor Planning Are Adversely Impacting Our Water, Air and Quality Of Life
Editor’s note: This story was originally published last year. In light of the recent alarming findings in the Suffolk County’s Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan, we have decided to run it again.
By Ilene Fucci
Dan Gulizio was the guest speaker at a recent meeting of the Greater Huntington Civic Group. Mr. Gulizio is a resident of Huntington and has worked as a professional planner on Long Island for nearly 25 years. During this time he has served as the Commissioner for the Department of Planning and Development for the town of Islip as well as the Commissioner of the Department of Planning Environment and Land Management for the town of Brookhaven. In addition, he has served as Deputy Director of Planning for both Nassau and Suffolk counties. He is currently the executive director of the community planning center whose mission is to protect, restore and enhance the quality of life with the partnership of the public for present and future generations. He holds a Masters Degree in Urban and regional planning from Columbia University. He is also a graduate of St. John’s University School of Law. He is a member of the American Planning Association, The American Institute of Certified Planners and the New York State Bar Association.
After being introduced by GHCG President Steven Spucces, Mr. Gulizio stated “I’d like to talk to you about 4 things:
1. What government’s fundamental responsibilities are.
2. How government is performing those responsibilities.
3. Why they are doing such a poor job of handling those responsibilities.
4. How we move forward and how we can improve upon this process.
He emphasized the point, “This issue is not a Republican issue, it’s not a democrat issue, it is not a libertarian issue. This is a quality of life issue. It’s common ground for all people that live within the community and businesses within the community. This is not a partisan issue.”
“We can all agree or disagree about what government ought to be doing. Some of us may think they should be doing a little bit more, some may think government should be doing a little bit less, but there are certain basic rights or entitlements like, clean air, clean water, and equal protection”, said Gulizio. He continued, “by equal protection, I mean two basic things; equal access to society benefits including opportunities, jobs, parks, open space and equal protection from its harms including crime, pollution, heavy industrial use.”
“Since I’m a planner,” continued Mr. Gulizio, “I like to talk numbers and facts and keep the opinion out of it as much as possible.”
Local Environmental Impacts and Concerns
“In terms of air quality, there are 62 counties in NY State. Suffolk county has the worst ozone pollution out of all the 62 counties in the entire state, stated Mr. Gulizio. He continued, “according to reports from the American Lung Association, for 13 years in a row, Suffolk County has received a grade of F based on its ozone pollution in a study conducted by the Lung Association.
There are a variety of reasons for this. One of the main reasons is the number of people living here. There are 1.5 million people living in Suffolk County and another 1.5 people living in Nassau County. This causes a great deal of pollution especially from the number of cars.
The Northport power plant has been evaluated as the 2nd most polluting power plant in the northeast. The Port Jefferson plant has been identified as one of the 21 dirtiest plants in New York State. Both of those plants don’t meet clean air standards that are required today. Mr. Gulizio explained that “when they were built, they were deemed to be temporary plants to be used for a brief period of time. They were supposed be taken off line but never happened.”
“We get all of our water from the aquifers below our feet,” stated Mr. Gulizio. “Whatever we put into the ground finds its way into our drinking water and into our streams, lakes and bays. The ground water supplies 70% of the flow for our surface water.”
“One of the biggest health contaminents that the department of health screens for is Nitrogen,” said Mr. Gulizio.
“Nitrogen comes from our waste, fertilizers as well as from the atmosphere,” said Gulizio. He continued, “the overwhelming majority of it comes from our septic systems and our sewage treatment plants.”
“The health department has established standards for articles 6 and 7 under the sanitary code to protect us from too much nitrogen going into our ground water. If we have more than 10 milligrams per liter of nitrogen we get sick.” The standard to keep the rivers, bays and estuaries is much more stringent then the ones that are supposed to keep us healthy. “Instead of no more than 10 milligrams per liter to keep us healthy, it is 1 milligram per liter to keep them healthy,” said Gulizio.
According to Gulizio, “from 1985 – 2002, Suffolk County Department of Health Services, did a study called the Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan Update. The study cost $800,000 and took 7-8 years to complete. It is in draft form right now.”
“According to the study, Nitrogen has increased in the Upper Glacial aquifer by 38%. In the next layer or Magothy Aquifer, it has increased by 200%,” said Gulizio.
He continued, “despite what we hear from the development community about too many restrictions, too much red tape, these findings may suggest otherwise.”
Gulizio explained that over-development has not only hurt our drinking water, it has adversely impacted our bays and streams.
He explained, “at one time, Long Island had one of the largest clam harvests in the country typically from the Great South Bay.”
“In 1976, approximately 700,000 bushels of clams were harvested from the Great South Bay. In 2009, the number was 7000 bushels. There has been a 99% decline in the clam population in the Great South Bay,” he said.
“In the 1970’s and 80’s the scallop population in the Peconic Estuary was one of the most naturally bountiful harvests in the county. Harvesters would typically remove between 400,000 and 500,000 pounds of scallops annually from the Peconic Estuary. It is now about 20,000 pounds,” said Gulizio.
“Studies show that the nitrogen that is impacting the clam and scallop population is coming from human waste,” explained Gulizio.
“In addition to the significant impact on the clam and scallop population, the lobster harvest has also been significantly impacted,” he said.
“The Long Island sound used to have one of the most bountiful lobster harvests. In 1998, there was 3.7 million pounds of lobsters removed from the Long Island Sound annually. In 2011, there was 124,000 pounds of lobster harvested which is a 98% decline,” explained Gulizio.
He stated, “Methoprene and other pesticides are some of the big culprits.” He continued, “In Connecticut, they have outlawed certain pesticides from being used near the coast. This issue is currently being discussed in the Suffolk County Legislature.”
“Water Quality experts will say as long as nitrogen is below 10 milligrams per liter or as long as the volatile organic compounds related to petroleum below the surface level stay below a certain level, and as long as certain pharmaceuticals are below a certain level, it’s ok. When asked the question what about a cocktail chemical sitting in our groundwater, what about that, did anybody study that? The answer is no. They can’t tell you what happens when you combine all of these elements,” stated Gulizio.
“The Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan Study detected more than 80 pesticide related compounds in our drinking water,” he added.
“We have more than 10,000 acres of shellfish beds that are closed on an annual basis because of toxins,” said Gulizio.
He explained there are diseases that not only hurt the shellfish, they hurt us. “We have diseases that give us intestinal problems. In Southampton and Huntington we have experienced what is called Paralytic Shellfish Disease, that not only kills the shellfish, but it is potentially fatal to humans who ingest shellfish that are contaminated with it.”
He questioned, “when did it become acceptable for us as a community to say that my kids can’t swim in our coastal waters today because it rained yesterday?”
“When it rains, it washes all of those toxins and pollutants into our waters and we can get sick if we swim,” he explained.
Gulizio continued, “Governments answer is to say “We’ll just put a sign up and a note on the county website and we’ll say you can’t swim and then everything will be ok.”
He continued, “What’s next? Don’t go outside today because the ozone pollution is so bad?” He continued, “well that’s starting to happen too. We get ozone advisory days where the elderly and sick are advised not to go outside. This is unacceptable and it doesn’t happen by accident. The reason this is happening is because we have poor regulation, poor planning and our development patterns are starting to come home to roost right now,” said Gulizio.
Sewage Treatment Plants
“There are 199 sewage treatment plants (constructed or under construction) in Suffolk county,” said Gulizio. He continued, “one thing everyone is talking about is that we need more sewage treatment plants to protect our water.”
“The Comprehensive Water Resources Management Study looked at the sewage treatment plants that were operating between 2003 – 2006. There were about 154 operating at that time. During that time period, 79% of those treatment plants failed to meet drinking water standards,” stated Gulizio.
Gulizio added, “you will hear that sewage treatment plants will improve the nitrogen situation.” If you look at one house tied to a sewage treatment plant compared to one house tied to a septic tank, more nitrogen will be removed from the house tied to the treatment plant. But it is deceiving, explained Gulizio “because in Suffolk County, sewage treatment plants are tied to dramatic increases in density development. So when you load 14 + units per acre on a parcel, you are loading more nitrogen into the water coming from a development connected to the sewage treatment plant than you would from a single family home.”
You have to ask the right questions; “Does a treatment plant remove more nitrogen? Yes. Does it remove nitrogen when you are having a dramatic increase in density? Absolutely not.”
“If you build in hubs and then preserve open space on another parcel then you are preventing sprawl.” According to Mr. Gulizio, of the 199 treatment plants, not one prevented sprawl and all led to higher density.
The Farce of the TOD
Transit Oriented Development is the concept of concentrating the development around the train station in order to reduce the amount of traffic of the increased development. Gulizio explained, “If you are increasing density you are not going to reduce traffic.” He added, “a single family home generates about 10 trips (car trips) per day. A high density unit in a TOD, yields about 6 trips per day. If you are increasing the density from 2 units per acre to 14 units per acre, you are not reducing the number of trips, in fact you are dramatically increasing the number of trips.”
Gulizio said that he asked the smart growth people to show him one place in the country that reduced traffic after increasing density. They could not come up with a single study to support this concept. ”If it is not decreasing traffic, and it is in fact increasing traffic, it is increasing your air pollution.”
You will hear people say, we need more multi-family housing because young people are leaving. They will say that multi-family housing generates fewer school aged children than single family homes. They will say that multi-family units are tax positive.
“If you compare one single family home to one unit of high density housing there will be more children in the single family home. In a study done by the Long Island Regional Housing Partnership it states in a single family home the number is .58 children per household.” stated Gulizio. “For a typical multi-family housing unit the expected number is .18 per unit. The problem is,” he continued “when we build multi-family housing, we don’t build it at the same density that we build a single family home. This is the study that was used to estimate the number of children that will be generated from the Avalon Bay Huntington Station project.”
If you base it on this study, there will be a 50% increase in the number of school aged children that will live in Avalon Bay compared to what would have been generated from the existing zoning,” Gulizio said.
“Once you get past the density of about 3.5 units per acre, you are generating more school aged children than a single family dwelling,” explained Gulizio.
Gulizio is concerned about some of the trends of high density development in Suffolk County. He discussed one recent project called Summerwind in Riverhead, which is on the Peconic River in downtown Riverhead. It is on 1/3 of an acre. The town of Riverhead allowed 52 housing units on a third of an acre with no parking available. That translates to 155 units per acre. Because the development was supposed to be affordable housing, the county paid the builder the cost of the land. They town gave 1.9 million dollars for a 1/3 acre parcel in Riverhead. The builder was also given a $350,000 infrastructure grant. Keyspan gave them a $25,000 grant to hook up to the utilities. Gulizio stated, “after getting all of that, the builder claimed that they were promised more money which is actually interesting because the bidding process is supposed to be secret so legally, there is no way they could have been promised more money.”
As a result of not getting as much money as they were supposedly promised, the builder said they are going to have to shrink the size of the development from 6 stories to 5 stories but they wanted to keep the same number of units. So they asked Riverhead officials to decrease the minimum square footage that the builder has to comply with. They lowered the size to 360 square feet from about 900 square feet for some of the units.
After all of the accommodations, the town gave the builder a 10 year 100% tax abatement and they also waved the sales tax for their construction materials.
These enormous developments with all kinds of tax abatements and tax payer subsidies are precedent setting, explained Gulizio.
“This is a trend and it continues. If you look at population density over time in suffolk county, it has not only increased but it is also moving East. This is causing the Island to become more and more dense,” said Gulizio.
The whole purpose of zoning is to decide whether and how you ought to use land. The idea is to make sure there is a rational balance in the amount of residential development, the amount of commercial development, and the amount of industrial development that you need in order to accommodate that tax base in order to maintain government services and educational services, he explained.
Gulizio continued, what has happened over the years after decades of influence of special interest and a lack of participation from the public is that the balance has gotten out of whack. We don’t have the right balance in many communities between residential, commercial and industrial. We don’t have the right jobs being generated. We have a surplus of shopping center development. We are seeing the number of abandoned shopping centers going up. We are also hurting our downtowns by building shopping centers outside of our downtowns, he explained.
Avalon Bay Debacle and Lack of Equal Protection for Huntington Station
When GHCG President Steven Spucces introduced Mr. Gulizio, he mentioned that the members may have heard him make reference to Mr. Gulizio in the past. Spucces stated, “Most of you have heard a story I told during the Avalon Bay saga,” said Spucces. “When we had our case heard by the Suffolk County planning Commission, Mr Gulizio was the person who was hired to make recommendations and offer professional advice to help the commission decide how to vote,” he said. Spucces explained that Mr. Gulizio made several recommendations and stated that the committee should not approve this project unless the builder agreed to several things including lowering the density and conforming to the surrounding properties.” Spucces remembers “on that day, several years ago, the committee nullified everything Gulizio said, struck it from the record, and said approved.”
Gulizio explained that there is a discrepancy regarding equal protection. “There are very different approaches to different communities,” he explained.
“Huntington Station has 16% of the town’s population, it also has 40% of the town’s minority population. It has 72% of the non senior subsidized housing stock,” explained Gulizio.
He asked, “Why is it that some communities have absolutely none of the subsidized housing stock and you have one community with only 16% of the town’s population and 72% of that housing stock?”
According to Gulizio, Huntington has an average density of about 2.1 units per acre. The average multi-family housing density in the town is 5.1 units per acre which is 140% higher than the town wide average. The multifamily housing in Huntington station is 9.5 units per acre, almost double. As it stands now, it is an 86% increase from the town wide average. To accommodate Avalon Bay, they approved 14.2 units per acre, which is 178% higher than the town wide average.
Gulizio explained, one of the disingenuous arguments made by the Avalon Bay proponents was that this is a perfect location because it is in close proximity of the train station. The typical walking distance to get to a train station is less than ½ mile, according to Gulizio.
“The Long Island index recently did a study including all the areas of Long Island that are within ½ mile of the train station. The Avalon Bay parcel was not included in that study because it is not within a ½ mile of the train station,” said Gulizio.
If you are walking from the eastern portion of the property it is over 1 mile to the train station,” Huntington Station resident Matt Harris said. “From the closest point it is 6/10th of a mile plus you have to walk from where you live in within the complex,” he added.
Avalon Bay will be 40% more dense than Highview which is 10 units per acre.
The existing zoning, which is R7 zoning only allows for 5.8 units per acre. “Why does that matter?” asked Gulizio. “It matters because the town just adopted a comprehensive plan about 1 year before the Avalon Bay application.” He continued, “according to the plan, it said don’t increase the zoning, and if you were to increase the density, it should be for commercial and industrial property, not high density residential property. Their own plan said that high density housing needs to be equally distributed across all communities and all areas of the town and school districts. They continue to violate their own plan.”
The town of Huntington went against their own plan that said that the subsidized housing should be fairly distributed throughout the town. “If you have a community that already has 72% of the subsidized housing stock, why is that an ok location for even more?,” he asked. “It doesn’t make sense from a planning stand point and it is not logical from a philosophical stand point,” said Gulizio.
Gulizio explained, one of the guidelines in Suffolk County is when you are going from a low density, to a high density, like Avalon Bay, you should offset that increase by transferring the development rights from someplace else. So you are conserving space someplace in order to allow for the increased density.”
He continued, “the Planning Department ignored their own guidelines in the case of Avalon Bay. From an equity standpoint, it is hard to justify, from a planning standpoint, it is hard to justify.”
Gulizio stated, “We recommended to the Planning Board that it should be lower density. We questioned why they would consider a new application inconsistent with their own guidelines.”
“The planning department has three choices when they make a recommendation, they can recommend approval, they can recommend disapproval, or they can recommend modification of the decision,” explained Gulizio. He continued, “when they recommend disapproval or modification it requires the town to have a super majority vote to override the committee. In the case of Avalon Bay, the committee went against their own guidelines and approved the project.”
He asked the members of the GHCG, “How many credits did they transfer to the site in order to allow for these 379 units to be approved?” He continued, “the answer is zero.”
“When we asked the County Planning commission about that, you know what they said?” asked Gulizio. “Ah, it doesn’t really matter.”
He concluded, “So you have a project, from an equity standpoint, is hard to justify, from a comprehensive plan stand point is hard to justify, and from the county rules it is hard to justify. Yet, it was approved with no explanation. We made recommendations, and they didn’t take any of the recommendations.”
How did we get here and can we recover?
Many people feel we have reached the point of no return in terms of Over Development and destroying Long Island’s natural resources. Mr. Gulizio is not one of them. He is still optimistic that we can reverse what has been going on.
According to Gulizio, “there are not enough people paying attention and participating in the process.” He explained that while regular people are not paying attention, special interest groups have been taking advantage. “They have more time and money to participate.”
One example he provided about special interest was from the Long Island Builders institute. This year they lobbied for several new rules. They wanted to modify SEQRA regulations. They also wanted to pass regulation where if you want to sue a builder, you would be required to post a bond, in the event that you lost, that bond would go to the developer to defray the cost of the delay to the developer. They also wanted to spur the development of additional multifamily housing and to find a subsidy to finance the infrastructure that’s needed to accommodate the additional multifamily housing.
Gulizio continued, “We can see the influence of the special interest in a variety of ways including the appointment of the boards that regulate land use. There is not one public school advocate on the town boards that deal with zoning and development. It is all business people.”
Another problem he explained, “You can’t have a rational process without all the pertinent information. The people on these boards don’t have good, impartial information.”
He urges resident to show up at meetings, and make calls to elected officials. He continued, “It can’t be the same faces of people that show up at every meeting. The key is to get a small percentage of the population to show up. We need to get 2% of the population to go to 2 meetings per year.” He believes that would be enough to make an impact.
“We need to motivate people and make them realize there are some common ground issues that we need to focus on. Such as clean air, clean water and equal protection.”
He continued, “it is not that one density is good and one is bad, it’s that you should know what issues and costs are associated with a particular development.”
A big problem that has been created in the Town of Huntington is that the town has violated its own rules. Gulizio said, “If the town had obeyed it’s own rules, it wouldn’t have to consider zoning changes or face lawsuits.” The town of Huntington put itself into a corner because it has violated the town’s fair housing act. When you don’t take a rational approach to development, you put yourself between a rock and a hard place.”
He continued, “every project sets a precedent.”
He explained the best way to clean ourselves of this is by having town officials start doing what they said they would do according to their Horizons 2020 plan.
“The town needs to adopt rational standards for the distribution and density of housing.” Gulizio continued, “when you do that, then you have a rational basis for your actions providing you act according to your plans. When you don’t do that, you leave the town and all the residents vulnerable to lawsuits and at the whim of the builders. Which is what has been going on in Huntington,” he explained.
“If you say you are going to use the plan, and you continue to only impact one or two communities then you are going to have problems,” he explained.
“It’s not just apathy that keeps people from getting involved. The fact is that most people haven’t been trained in this to be part of this process,” stated Gulizio. That is something Gulizio would like to help change.
He concluded, “what I have found 98% of the time, if people are given a straight answer as to why something is a good thing or a bad thing from an objective land use standpoint, even if they don’t like it, generally they are reasonable in their approach because they feel they are being treated fairly. The reason why people go crazy is when there is arbitrary decision making and the people feel they are being taken advantage of in favor of private industry and special interest groups and they are being impacted in their quality of life.”