Editorial: County planning ‘alliance’ should be put on hold

A bird's eye view of the Enterprise Park at Calverton site. (Credit: Andrew Lepre, file)

In a county as populous and diverse as Suffolk, coordinating the planning efforts of towns and villages should be a priority — especially in the face of the myriad challenges the area faces. Individual municipalities from Shelter Island to Huntington continue to confront issues involving water quality, affordable housing, high-paying jobs and the infrastructure needed to support future development. But these challenges also concern the region as a whole. So they must be addressed collaboratively as well.

Suffolk County’s Comprehensive Master Plan 2035, approved unanimously by the Legislature in July, makes note of these challenges and more, encouraging the county to issue incentives for municipalities to work together to ensure sound planning across their boundary lines. That’s an effort worth backing, and one that nearly everyone at Tuesday’s county Legislature meeting supported.

But the Master Plan did not detail exactly how to incentivize planning for municipalities. And that’s what makes it a little difficult — at least right now — to get behind Tuesday’s vote on a Suffolk County Regional Planning Alliance.

The vote effectively tied county funding for projects — from downtown revitalization grants to wastewater treatment dollars — to participation in the newly formed alliance, which is distinct from the existing Suffolk County Planning Commission. Some, including Southold Supervisor Scott Russell and Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine, view the effort as a requirement that towns and villages cede their independent planning and zoning powers to the county. Those claims are questionable and probably overstated.

However, they do raise legitimate questions that Tuesday’s approval of the alliance — which passed 10-7 — ignored: Specifically, how should towns, villages and Suffolk County balance the need for regional planning with local control? Did a thorough dialogue take place before a measure was enacted that will affect the region for decades to come? And are there any ways to simply adjust government entities that are already in place to meet the goals of the Master Plan?

A firm refusal by Legislator William Lindsay (D-Oakdale), sponsor of the legislation, to table the measure amid some valid concerns was, to say the least, not a good start for this new regional planning effort. One legislator went so far as to say, “Something stinks.”

Yes, the legislation met the proper legal posting requirements, so waiting any longer for a vote was not necessary. But a short delay in forming this new alliance would not result in a loss of millions of dollars in investment in the county, as some legislators claim. Such a presumption is unfair and borders on fear-mongering.

Some town supervisors (most of whom were involved in election campaigns this fall) said they weren’t even aware of the pending legislation until November. Shelter Island’s supervisor didn’t find out about it until after it was passed. Real concerns have been expressed about how it will affect towns’ ability to control projects within their own borders. So we have to ask if this legislation is really about working together or about forcing a regional concept on the municipalities within it.

The legislation has its merits and is clearly well-intentioned. But most people know which road is paved with good intentions, and rushing this alliance to formation starts it down the wrong path from the get-go. Southold Supervisor Scott Russell has already said that his town will likely not participate. Questions should clearly be answered before the alliance is created, not after.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has yet to sign the bill. While he’s expressed support for it, he can withhold his signature or simply veto the measure until further conversation takes place between local leaders and supporters at the county level.

If the Regional Planning Alliance is meant to foster thorough discussion among municipalities about future plans for Suffolk County, why wait until it’s a done deal to begin that discussion?

Photo: A bird’s eye view of the Enterprise Park at Calverton site. (Credit: Andrew Lepre, file)