Brookhaven Politics Threaten The Future of Carmans River

Long Island Press May 10th, 2012
By Spencer Rumsey

Along the bank of the Carmans River, the white oaks are just starting to turn green, the red maples are beginning to bud.

“This was my childhood playground!” exclaims Marty Van Lith, a Brookhaven historian and environmental activist, from the stern of our canoe.

We glide past a fisherman up to his knees in the river making his line flick across the water like a silken thread uncoiling off a spool. He tells us he got a late start this morning—9 a.m.—but he’s caught a 12-inch trout already, so he likes the spot he’s found. From this bend in the river we can’t hear the traffic rushing on Sunrise Highway, just the chirping of red-wing blackbirds and a couple of mallard ducks flapping off the water while some barn swallows swoop silently above the surface catching flies. We could be in the Adirondacks for all we know.

Around another bend we spot a black-crested night heron on the bank craning its neck around a tree trunk to gauge our intentions. We paddle upstream, through the sedges and marsh grass to reach the C-Gate Dam, known as the Pheasant Road Dam years ago, where the river drops several feet and the current is strong. But we can go no further, so we head back, where we pull up to the dock at the park headquarters as a pair of swans loudly take off from the reeds on the far side of Hards Lake.

To the naked eye, the Carmans River looks smooth and inviting. But beneath the surface trouble is brewing.

Pressure is building on the Carmans. It’s still one of Suffolk County’s cleanest rivers but how much longer can its pristine quality be preserved without drastic government intervention? Overdevelopment has choked the nearby Forge River in Mastic, which is officially “dead” and in need of costly restoration. In the Carmans, the levels of nitrates and volatile organic compounds are on the rise, signs of human encroachment along the river banks and throughout the Brookhaven watershed. And if the Carmans gets polluted, then the Great South Bay—an impaired waterway that draws 17 percent of its water from the river—will be further at risk.

Two years ago with much fanfare Brookhaven Town Supervisor Mark Lesko, a Democrat, put together a study group to see if they could come up with a plan to preserve the Carmans River with the same kind of forward thinking that had led to the landmark Pine Barrens Act in 1993. After many meetings and work sessions, overseen by Dr. Lee Koppelman, a Long Island master planner, the study group signed off on its plan after some 18 months and turned it over to Lesko so he could begin the initial approval process under the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

But he was thwarted by two town board members of his own party, Councilman Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld and Councilwoman Connie Keppert, plus an outpouring of public opposition that came to a head at a public hearing on March 29 because the river protection plan also involved zoning changes to encourage multi-family housing.

As Koppelman told the Press, the hearing “was a blood bath.”

Lesko took his plan off the table.

“What we were doing was fairly revolutionary for Long Island,” Lesko says. “We were taking kind of a big picture approach to the problem—the problem being that you’ve got a fairly pristine river that’s in that condition now because of prior investments by government to protect huge pieces of that watershed.”

Critics of the study group plan say the citizens were excluded from the process. They called the final proposal deceptive, masking a power grab by the Pine Barrens Commission to usurp the town’s zoning authority in collusion with developers who would get “as of right” multi-family housing that would unfairly burden school districts and taxpayers. They claimed the plan was more about economic development and creating a market for the transfer of Pine Barrens credits—monetary compensation paid to a property owner who can no longer develop his/her land if it’s preserved—than about saving the Carmans River.

Lesko thought the Pine Barrens’ model of transferring the development rights was the right approach, given that government doesn’t have the fiscal resources to purchase the land outright. By expanding the Pine Barrens core protection area to include the Carmans River watershed, about 500 new credits would be created (a credit now goes for $80,000), and the town would identify and approve multi-family sites as receiving areas for the credits to be used by developers eager to meet the need for affordable, work-force housing, also known in planning circles as “next generation” housing because it’s aimed at keeping young people from leaving LI.

“In essence, you could preserve the property using a market-based system,” Lesko says, “and protect the last third of the river that needs to be protected.”

But now the effort to protect the river rests on the shoulders of four council members, two Democrats and two Republicans, whose “new road map” or “Carmans River 2.0” idea, as Fiore-Rosenfeld has dubbed it, either puts the public ahead of “the special interests” or signs “a death warrant for the river,” depending on who’s talking. The specifics of this road map have been in short supply but the public will get to weigh in at Brookhaven Town Hall on May 30 at 6 p.m. and June 2 at 1 p.m.

One thing is clear. The Carmans River may be only 10 miles long but the fight over its fate seems to embody everything that’s wrong with the Island: an aging suburb, inadequate sanitation, dearth of affordable housing, a growing threat to drinking water, and a toxic mix of NIMBYism and racism.

“Some of my colleagues did not want this process to move forward to the next phase so they stopped it,” Lesko says. “They appealed unfortunately to elements in our community that for a variety of reasons are opposed to next generation housing when the proposal involves putting it in their communities.”

Practically everybody in town insists they want to save the river—they just can’t agree on how. And when their constituents are screaming about “those people” moving into their school districts, the council members may have understandably buckled. Another wrinkle is that Brookhaven’s councilmanic system, now over a decade old, may make it even harder for them to come together and do the right thing for the town as a whole without a bitter, protracted battle.

“This is like Armageddon,” says a well-connected official with long-time ties to Brookhaven Town who served on the study group and asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak. “Now, they’re shooting missiles!”

“If my colleagues can create a better process that gets us to a point where you have the political will to do this, that would be wonderful,” Lesko tells the Press. “I have yet to see a plan, though. I have seen a resolution that creates a plan for a process.”


River of Time

The Carmans River got its start about 20,000 years ago in a valley cut through the Ronkonkoma Moraine when the glaciers retreated and the icy meltwater scoured the sediment deposits, exposing the groundwater table. Today about 94 percent of the Carmans is from groundwater.

Go back a couple of centuries and the English settlers who’d acquired the original patent from King William and Queen Mary in 1693 were starting to put the river to good use. Soon there’d be grist mills, lumber mills and fulling mills, which turned flax into cloth. Samuel Carman bought a mill in 1780 and his family lent the river their name. The mills are gone but not the lakes the mill dams created.

This river has a storied history. These days the state stocks the river with trout, but that wasn’t the case when Daniel Webster caught a 14-pound trout in Carmans River in 1824 and brought it to the fabled Delmonico’s restaurant for cooking. His catch was immortalized by a Currier & Ives engraving, and was the inspiration for the trout replica in the weathervane of old Southaven Presbyterian Church. Martin Van Buren and Theodore Roosevelt are just two of the illustrious Americans who’ve hunted and fished along the Carmans. Thanks to the well-endowed sportsmen of the Suffolk Club, led by millionaire August Belmont, the land around Hards Lake was preserved, later becoming the Southaven County Park, Suffolk’s first park in 1964. On the other side of Sunrise, the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge, another generous donation from a rich benefactor, preserves the mouth of the river from future development.

Near Carmans’ headwaters a historical milestone with far-reaching significance that occurred in 1965 when a local woman, Carol Yannacone, saw workers from the Suffolk County Mosquito Control Commission dumping barrels of DDT into the river, causing a large fish kill at Upper Lake. With her prodding, her lawyer husband Victor Yannacone sued the county “in the name of generations yet unborn” to stop using the pesticide. Suffolk banned DDT in 1967, New York State followed suit in 1970, and the nation did so two years after that.

From the river’s near-death experience came another remarkable achievement a couple of years later, when two students from Bellport High School, Mike Butler and John Sailor, rode their bikes all the way to Albany to bring a sample of the Carmans’ “still-pure water” to Assemb. Bill Bianchi as the State Legislature was considering the Wild Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act. The publicity worked, and the Carmans was included in the “study” in 1974, and later became the first river in New York to be designated under the act. The law’s protections are narrow, according to activists, and not nearly as broad as the restrictions on development under the terms of the Pine Barrens Act that came two decades later.

The Carmans is one of three rivers in the Pine Barrens and environmentalists say it would gain more protection if the core preservation area of the Pine Barrens Act were expanded to include more of its watershed. Under the act, 52,500 acres are in the core preservation area, and 47,500 acres are in the compatible growth area. So far 9,000 acres in the core in Brookhaven are protected outright, according to Supervisor Lesko, and ideally his Carmans River plan was going to add 3,570 acres more. All told, he wanted to use about 566 acres, a scant amount of Brookhaven’s 165,000 acre total, to accommodate multi-family housing by transferring Pine Barrens credits to selected receiving areas.

Lesko thought the Pine Barrens Act was a good model and he looked to the Carmans River Partnership, formed over a decade ago to prevent Home Depot from building on a 15-acre parcel on the east bank of the river just north of the Sunrise Highway, to lay the groundwork.


Drop Me in the Water

“Public input was certainly wanting in this process,” says Councilwoman Connie Keppert, adding that it was a “tremendous flaw” not to include the civic groups at the table “and I think that is what really killed the plan.”

The Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Organization, aka ABCO, an umbrella group of civics, has hailed the road map proposal by Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld (D-East Setauket), Kepert (D-Middle Island), Dan Panico (R-Manorville) and Tim Mazzei (R-Blue Point) and strongly criticized Lesko’s “last ditch attempt to save the flawed Carmans River Watershed Plan, developed by special interest groups without any significant citizen input.”

Fiore-Rosenfeld had not returned repeated requests for comment for this story as of press time. He told the Village Times Herald last month that his process would involve the community more than the study group chaired by Dr. Koppelman.

“They had these meetings but they had them called ‘the Carmans River protection plan’ and only had them at Town Hall,” he told the Herald. “How many people from Three Village are going to show up to a meeting for a river they’ve never heard of?”

But some who tried to get involved said they were sidelined.

“I had to go to extraordinary lengths to be able to have any input into that process,” says Doug Swesty, a nuclear astrophysicist who teaches at Stony Brook University and is the LI watershed director of the Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition as well as past president of Trout Unlimited. “The meetings were scheduled during the day. I ended up taking a large number of vacation days in order to attend these meetings. We could not speak during debate within the groups. We only had the opportunity to add comments.”

Swesty had sympathy for those who said there wasn’t enough citizen input but he faulted Councilwoman Keppert.

“I haven’t seen her really advocating for protections of the river whatsoever,” Swesty says. “What I see her doing is advocating for development within the river corridor.”

Keppert, through her staff, denied the accusation.

Particularly outspoken was Maryann Johnston, the former president of ABCO, who attended every study group meeting but never got what she was looking for.

“There were no civics at the table,” she says. “We didn’t have a vote.

“We believe in community organizing, grass roots, from the bottom up,” says Johnston. “We don’t put developers in a room with environmentalists and [then have them] come out and tell people what their communities are going to look like. That’s not how we do things here.”

One of the six members of the town board beside Lesko who supported the study group plan was Councilwoman Kathy Walsh (R-Centereach).

“I would have liked to see the original plan be set for a public hearing so that it can go before the town board with all the research that had been done and get a public vetting,” she says. “It was a good plan. It wasn’t a political plan… I think there was a hysteria thrown out there about multi-family housing…. I think we deserve some credit for having an understanding of our community. No elected official is going to be supportive of bringing the Bronx into their neighborhood—I don’t mean to be derogatory of the Bronx, I’m from Brooklyn—but I’ve been out here all my life…. We definitely need to address the housing issues that we have here.”

Pine Barrens Society President Dick Amper says the goal was to smooth the process.  “The builders are going to build anyway,” he says. “You want the preservation! So why would you separate the two? It’s the linkage that allows it to happen! You get the housing over there, we protect the river over here.”

Johan McConnell, past president of the South Yaphank Civic Association, was supportive of the study group’s intentions.  “I had the ability to speak when I wanted to,” she says. “And then I could follow up with the people in the planning department if I had more questions… Maryann had the opportunity to speak as much as anybody did, and Maryann did speak.” 

McConnell, who attended many of the public sessions, faulted Councilman Fiore-Rosenfeld for realizing late in the game how the study group plan would impact his North Shore constituents. She says the town held numerous meetings “but nobody from the North Shore bothered to come.”  She pointed out that under the revised multi-family zoning code, the maximum number of units per acre would actually go from 12 units to 10.5 units.

“I understand that multi-family housing does not always negatively impact on a school district,” McConnell says. “It can have a positive impact.” 

But people did show up in full fury at the March 29 public hearing to rail against affordable housing, in no small part due to the robo-calls from Comsewogue Schools Superintendent Joseph V. Rella, who said he’d gotten a call from Fiore-Rosenfeld.

“The only thing I ever asked people to do is go and be represented,” says Rella. “We wanted to be at the table when there was a discussion about placing any kind of housing in our community. That’s all.”

LI’s decades-old denigration of “those people” was on full display the night of the hearing, much to the discomfort of civic leader McConnell, who tells the Press, “‘Those people’…That’s not what ‘affordable’ [housing] is. It’s your starting nurse, your starting teacher, your fireman, your policeman.… It’s not Section 8, it’s not low-income!”

Fiore-Rosenfeld’s “new road map” does worry her, however, since “200 people could show up [at one of the two public meetings] and each one could have a different plan!” So, she adds, “Now you’re having this public input, [but] are you going to listen to the person who’s the loudest?”

Her solution is simple.

“My plan is just up-zone everything because they don’t need to have public input on that,” McConnell says. “It’s well with the town’s land-use management to up-zone.”

And another thing she’d do is mandate that the towns of Riverhead, Southampton and Brookhaven use the Pine Barrens credits.

“We’re not happy about the notion of a rezone,” says Joe Gergela, head of the Long Island Farm Bureau. “In our opinion the best way to preserve something is to buy it. So, if they’re serious about protecting the watershed areas, they need a better plan on how they’re going to raise the money to acquire the open space and compensate the land owners. Whether it’s a farmer or anybody who owns land, there’s a fairness issue. Rezoning does not get us there. That screws land owners.”

“Down-zoning allows more density per acre,” says ABCO’s Johnston. “Up-zoning allows less density per acre. I think up-zoning is the way to go. It was not even a tool in the tool box in the plan that was presented the last time around.”

Cross Currents

McConnell, the Yaphank civic leader, said that Lesko “got blindsided because he thought he had included the communities, that he had reached out to them and that he had held public meetings…. The public had an opportunity to come to every study group [and] technical session and speak. Dr. Koppelman was always fair. He always asked the people sitting there: ‘Do you have any comments? Do you have any concerns? Speak them now.’ And people did!”

Lesko says the plan was done in by a smear campaign.

 “If elected officials engaged in misinformation campaigns like the one that Maryanne Johnston has engaged in on the Carmans River, they would be indicted,” exclaims Lesko. “This is some of the most irresponsible fear-mongering I’ve experienced as a sitting town supervisor. I have no problem disagreeing with people, I respect them if they disagree with me, and I respect them if they’re knowledgeable. I have a problem with people who intentionally misrepresent what the plan proposed and do it in a way that fans emotions among the public based upon that misunderstanding. Maryanne Johnston was at every meeting, so it is again an absolute misrepresentation to say that this was done behind closed doors!”

Koppelman sees a lost opportunity.

“As soon as that plan was finished, I suggested strongly that we immediately start the process in terms of getting the plan accepted so that legally the process could continue,” says Koppelman, looking back. “And that’s when the separate meetings started to take place. If the supervisor had put it on the [town board] agenda at that time, even if the builders and the environmentalists would have bitched, at least the process could have gone forward.”

McConnell recalls the passage of the Pine Barrens Act two decades ago for inspiration. “When the act finally passed, the developers and the environmentalists both gave in on something for the betterment of the community,” she says. “We would never have the act that we have now—saving 100,000 acres—if those two groups could not have come together for a compromise.”

Amper would no doubt agree with her on the value of compromise but not on her solution for the river.

“You’re not preserving it by up-zoning,” he says. “If you put it into the Pine Barrens core, it’s protected with the full faith of the State of New York.”

Jim Tripp, senior counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund and chairman of the Pine Barrens Credit Clearing House, says there’s a rationale for rejuvenating the Pine Barrens credit program because in Brookhaven as of Oct. 20, 2011, 464 credits have been issued but only 230 had been redeemed.

“The success of the program depends not only on the issuance of Pine Barrens credits but their redemption. And the redemption rate is too low,” Tripp says.

A top state environmentalist with no direct connection to the Pine Barrens Commission says, “The credit program isn’t stagnant, but there is a concern that towns should not approve higher housing densities without requiring the redemption of Pine Barrens credits.”

“By requiring the redemption of credits, they’ll make the program even stronger,” the official adds.

“To me the transfer development rights is not the most effective system,” says Koppelman. He said the program “doesn’t work unless you’re transferring within the same school district. As soon as you transfer rights from one school district to another, the potential receiving area becomes a political campaign. And that’s exactly what happened.”

In his view the builders saw an opening and took it.

“Knowing that [the transfer of development rights] is not that effective, they said, ‘Well, if the environmentalists are going to get an extension of the Pine Barrens, we want as a matter of right [Koppelman’s emphasis] that automatically when we pick a site we don’t have to go through a zoning change and all the nonsense and ten years later we still don’t have approval.’ So in other words, if the environmentalists were going to get something, then the builders wanted to get something, too,” Koppelman says.

“I disagree with the supposition that there was no community input,” says Mitch Pally of the Long Island Builders Institute, who wrestled with his environmentalist counterpart, Amper, on the details of the transfer of development rights in the study group proposal. He says the town doesn’t have enough receiving sites for Pine Barrens credits as it is, but with the new road map “they have basically given up on working that issue,” he says. “The politics are very difficult when you have council districts and two-year term limits, and Brookhaven has both!

“Young people don’t want the single-family homes anymore, they want multi-family housing on the main roads and the downtowns, and that’s what we’re trying to accomplish,” says Pally. Under the study group plan, the town board would have approved the receiving sites before the planning board would have been involved.

That loss of control was seized by some of the council members who opposed the study group’s plan.

“It takes the most important power of the town board away from it and that is the ability to change zones,” says Councilwoman Keppert. “That is our most important power. It is the power of the elected representative. It shouldn’t be ceded to special interest groups and that’s what we were doing.”

“All I was trying to do was save a river,” Lesko told the crowd at the March 29 hearing.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is keeping a close watch on the plan.

“Obviously we have a significant investment in the Carmans,” says Peter Scully, the DEC Long Island regional director. “We manage the trout hatchery, we stock the river. We administer the Wild Scenic and Recreational River system and this river is so designated. We have a real interest in the process and we will continue to monitor the situation closely. At the end of the day, the initiative appears to have fallen victim to an inability on the part of local government to reach consensus. Hopefully, they will break that logjam and agree on the appropriate way to provide stronger protections for the river.

“Compared to other rivers, the Carmans River is in fairly good shape,” Scully says. “There are threats to it but the general quality of the water is relatively high.”

Lesko doesn’t want a repeat of the Forge River.

“We can see all throughout Long Island examples of what will happen to that river inevitably if we don’t take steps now to protect it,” says Lesko. “The Forge River is essentially a dead river. Virtually nothing is living in the river because of the nitrogen levels.”

Swesty of Trout Unlimited agreed that Carmans River is “certainly cleaner than the Forge but at this point this is not a pristine river.” He wants a stringent water quality standard to regulate nitrate levels in the river.

“The groundwater has been seriously compromised,” he says. “There’s good peer review science that shows that you begin to suffer damage to aquatic vertebrate communities.”

Kevin McAllister, the Peconic Baykeeper, served on the study group and voted against the final draft because it omitted his preference for a stringent nitrogen standard.

“If we’re serious about protecting the Carmans River, there has to be constraints on the amount of development that occurs and new development has to incorporate state-of-the-art wastewater treatment,” he says. “We have an opportunity for a do-over here and I hope that everybody will be committed to an above-board, transparent process that again prioritizes water quality protection.”

And so the fate of the Carmans is unclear.

“What’s going to happen to Long Island when they don’t have clean groundwater anymore because they don’t control where and how our development happens?” warns John McNally, environmental program officer and communications director at the Rauch Foundation, a not-for-profit group that produces the Long Island Index. “As long as the needs of a few continue to outweigh the needs of the many, that’s the way it’s going to be. The region as a whole has a tremendous need for affordable, mixed-use housing but if every single community decides that it doesn’t want to carry that burden, and as long as there’s no real leadership on these issues, we’re basically sealing our fate as a region that’s in decline.”

And that’s what’s really riding on the Carmans River.




©2013 South Yaphank Civic Association