A Plan Comes Together: Saving the Carmans River


Aerial shot of Carmans River by Martin Van Lith


As George Peppard used to say in “The A-Team,” “I love it when a plan comes together.” I had that feeling recently when a long-sought plan seemed to be coming together to save the Carmans River… and to provide a better model for land use on Long Island.

Long Island has a reputation for poor planning, sprawling over the landscape and brawling over land use decisions. However, the need to protect the Island’s largest river, which flows through the Long Island Pine Barrens from Middle Island to Great South Bay, provided an opportunity to do much more.

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Pine Barrens Protection Act of 1993, the landmark legislation that has protected drinking water and preserved critical habitat, while directing sensible development to less sensitive areas, a new Carmans protection plan is being developed.

Stakeholders and government leaders came together to try to refine a plan to protect the river from the suburban sprawl that has overtaken too much of Long Island. Environmentalists, developers, and civic leaders all had contributions to a plan to reduce nitrogen pollution, caused mostly by sewage that has begun to compromise the watershed, even as it threatens drinking water and surface waters across Long island

First initiated by Peter Scully, Chairman of the New York State Pine Barrens Commission and our Long Island Pine Barrens Society, a plan was introduced by former Brookhaven Town Supervisor Mark Lesko two years ago, but was killed by petty politics, having nothing to do with the merits of the plan. Current Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine has revived and revised the plan to limit development and focus instead on the preservation envisioned for the plan in the first place.

What seemed like endless meetings and problem-solving has resulted in a plan to ban development in 3,100 acres of the Carmans watershed by expanding the Core Preservation Area of the Pine Barrens, and rezoning other lands. This will improve drinking and surface waters and reduce the pollutants that find their way to the river and Great South Bay. It will also help protect the rich diversity of plants and animals that depend on the river.

But, if landowners are told they cannot develop on some of this land, what then? Government can’t afford to buy all the land—and this is where the plan really gets creative—it transfers development away from residential areas, to commercial and industrial zones, where infrastructure is already in place. It also promotes construction of much-needed, multi-family housing and even provides incentives to build this housing close to railroad stations, supermarkets, and other amenities, so as to create livable, walkable communities. This has been a goal of planners for years.

The plan also envisions true “affordable housing.” That term has lost any meaning by being applied to homes priced out of reach for most Long Islanders. We’ve recommended that the Carmans Plan specify the actual cost of the limited multi-family housing expected to be built. We think housing costing as little as $200,000 is what’s needed.

We ended up with a plan that provides not only environmental protection for the river, but limited development of the sort that Long Island needs—where it belongs—and housing that people can actually afford.

We achieved this by focusing on what stakeholders wanted, instead of the usual focus on what we don’t. Government will still have to approve the plan at the state and local level, but citizens themselves hammered out the recommendations. Sure there were a few naysayers. Some said the same about the Pine Barrens plan in 1993, but their fears have not been realized.

I think everyone will benefit when the plan is finally implemented this fall. Like the Pine Barrens Act, the Carmans River Watershed Protection Plan should remind all of us that by working together positively, we can start solving our most pressing problems, instead of just arguing about them.