A business that is responsive to the changing climate is one that survives, and Long Island’s developers are no exception to this basic building tenant.

When the recession hit and real estate activity ground to a halt, the builders faced a multifaceted dilemma. Do we wait it out or adapt our business model? Developers wisely chose to adapt.

From there on out, the building philosophy has shifted from the once common single-family home development to the multifamily model. Suddenly, “transit-oriented development” and “multifamily” housing became the projects to build. “Smart Growth,” the planning concept that is still misunderstood, now draws in policymakers and builders who tout its perks while not fully understanding its execution.

Why the shift? Higher density, multifamily units are in vogue right now and have a proven track record of getting approved by towns and finding needed financing. Builders and banks like certainty, and today’s market is giving certainty to “smart” projects. Single-family home construction is stalling on Long Island thanks to limited space and less market demand. On Long Island, the mantra has always been that we can “build your way out” of a recession, and this train of thought is still chugging along with no apparent sign of stopping anytime soon.  What we’re seeing is a new iteration of our old approach to growth: Build your way out.

The New Suburbia: Higher Density Sprawl

If current development trends on Long Island continue, the region will find itself with sprawl’s bigger, uglier brother: Higher Density sprawl.

Traditional planning theory dictates that with each density increase given to developers by local government, there should be an equal piece of preservation to accompany it. In recent years, land preservation has been declining thanks to escalating prices and dwindling supply of vacant space in both Nassau and Suffolk.  This, mixed with the increased appetite for downtown, “smart” development, is the perfect climate for higher density development.

Now, high density itself is not the enemy but rather, the way Long Island seeks to employ the concept. Currently, projects are being given increased densities without the necessary accompanying transit, road and wastewater upgrades. Further, these projects are being zoned in a patchwork manner, municipality by municipality, parcel by parcel, and yet, little to no open space is being preserved in tandem to offset the increased densities.

For example, in the Town of Brookhaven, an 8.9-acre site located at the junction of Route 112 and Jefferson Ave. was originally slated to be a 96-unit multifamily development, but has since been approved for 85 units. While wastewater infrastructure is being upgraded, the density increase amounts to roughly nine to 10 units per acre on a blighted former car dealership. As the Suffolk County Planning Commission said in its initial review of this particular project in August 2011, the ramp property is “more than ¼ mile (1,250 feet) from a downtown, hamlet center and is not within 500 feet of a Main Street Business District,” and yet still received a density upgrade. This is one small example out of many.

Curbing High Density Sprawl

The pro-growth climate is entrenched in the psyche of Long Island’s advocates, policymakers and developers, but in order to move forward in a viable manner, the development philosophy must embrace the limitations of our infrastructure and the carrying capacities of our aquifers.

When the conversation regarding our housing needs, transit limitations and shortcomings regarding infrastructure is dominated by builders, developers and other advocates who are decidedly pro-growth, the resulting policies reflect their intents.

It is important for residents to always remember that there is a marked distinction between “builders” and “planners.” Builders actively seek to increase development, while the goal of planning is to balance development and preservation within the existing community framework.

When it comes to dictating Long Island’s future, do we want the foxes watching the hen house?