Suffolk Closeup: Environmentalists call new bill a big step backward

10/19/2011 5:00 PM |

“It’s absolutely a nightmare,” says Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. She was speaking about a bill that sailed quickly through the Suffolk Legislature recently and has been signed into law by County Executive Steve Levy.

It’s about the new Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan put together after years of work by the Suffolk Department of Health Services. The bill states that the legislature “finds and determines that the Comprehensive Plan may recommend several major policy shifts, including the establishment of a maximum allowable density of one acre [for new houses] in all groundwater management zones” for areas close to the water.

It requires the county’s Department of Health and Board of Health to “receive legislative approval prior to enacting, by administrative action or amendments to the Sanitary Code, any policy changes arising out of” the plan.

Says Ms. Esposito: “The health department is a non-political entity charged with protecting drinking water and public health and has professional expertise in this field. The Legislature does not have that expertise and clearly it’s a political body. The last thing Suffolk County needs is politicians entering into public health decisions.”

Bob DeLuca, president of the Group for the East End, says: “The Suffolk County Department of Health Services has been a national leader in the advancement of environmental health because it is largely driven by science and public interest and not hog-tied by short-term political expedience. As we learn more and more about the uncertain future of our region’s endangered water resources, the last thing we need is 18 politicians playing Russian Roulette with our public and environmental health.”

Kevin McAllister, the Peconic Baykeeper, concurs. “It’s not a good thing,” he says of the measure. Those behind it are “responding to the development community, which has perhaps seen the writing on the wall that there is going to need to be policy changes” to protect Suffolk’s aquifer — its sole source of drinking water — and its increasingly contaminated surface waters.

“This is an end-run to prevent the health department from establishing new policy,” Mr. McAllister said.

Indeed, Mitch Pally, CEO of the Long Island Builders Institute, has decried the Comprehensive Plan as “draconian in relation to the negative affect it would have on the real estate industry.”

The bill’s author is Legislator Tom Cilmi of Bay Shore. With his measure’s passage, he issued a statement declaring: “Decisions and policy directives which could have a significant impact on public health, on the environment and on the economy should be fully vetted by the Legislature in a public forum fitting the gravity of such decisions and the Legislature should have the final say.”

Mr. Cilmi is “always looking for balance between environmental concerns such as open space and drinking water preservation, which he agrees are important, and economic concerns such as jobs and taxes,” according to the statement.

The bill is a Suffolk counterpart by Republican Cilmi to the Republican effort in Congress to counter environmental initiatives by the EPA. Yet it was approved overwhelmingly by the legislature, 16-2, with nearly all the panel’s Democratic majority voting for it.

Legislator Jay Schneiderman of Montauk, an Independence Party member, voted in favor of the measure but says “it certainly does open a can of worms.” Still, “there are some legislators concerned that the plan would lead to the health department making sweeping changes that could affect the economy. And we wanted to be part of the process.”

The plan can be viewed online at:

It is a careful document that opens with the declaration that its “goals and objectives are targeted to protect and improve ground and surface water quality in the coming years, recognizing that maintenance of these invaluable resources is vital to the health and economic well-being of Suffolk County residents.”

At its heart: preservation of drinking water that is critical for life and surface water, which is key to our environmental and economic well-being. This alliance of Suffolk legislators and the development crowd is a big step backward for a county that has had a good environmental record.