The following was written for the September 2015 Issue of Boating Times Long Island. The original can be read here.
The gentle lapping of the water against the shoreline is a sound many Long Islanders cherish. Some pay exorbitant amounts of money to live where they may hear it as they wake up in the morning; others dream of doing so.
Long Islanders feel spiritually connected to water and bound by it physically. Few places in the world have such access to beautiful coasts (though residents in Nassau and Suffolk Counties may forget this perk while stuck in traffic or when paying their property taxes). Our coastline is invaluable and the amount of tourism dollars it generates rivals that of other states. Water — for recreation, industry, farming, and drinking — is a critical resource for Long Islanders.
Our bucolic coast is in danger, and finding its biggest threat is easy — all one has to do is look at the various homes and businesses scattered across Long Island’s suburban landscape. Development and the aftereffects of economic expansion are creating a perilous situation for the region’s natural environment. Thanks to the wastewater of residences and businesses in Suffolk County, which is heavily reliant upon aging cesspools to treat effluent, our waterways are being clogged with nitrogen. Fertilizers used for farming, an economic powerhouse out on the East End, is contributing to the problem as well, helping to create choking harmful algal blooms that for the last 30 years have become shockingly routine.
Can it be that Long Islanders’ love affair with the water is also what is killing it? Will waterfront living, like Long Island’s potato fields, disappear as time wears on? The case of eliminating coastal development is compelling, but highly unlikely. Property owners worked hard to get their stake of the coast, and aren’t going to give it up anytime soon. Local municipalities rely on collecting the taxes on such parcels, while the real estate industry romanticizes coastal living at every turn. The waterfront, once home to the industrial centers of commerce, now generates an economic benefit from the business of recreation. Combined, boating and the real estate market are massive industries on Long Island, both filling an important role in the region’s suburban economy and impacting our waterways.
In the past, development along the waterfront made sense. Long Island’s harbors, bays, coves, and rivers were the centers of commerce, helping give rise to global trade and whaling industries. In the years before the suburban building boom, Long Island’s coastal development was small scale — each home had ample property to allow for scenic vistas and proper groundwater recharge. In the years after World War II, the fields turned to subdivisions, and along the coast, homes crept closer and closer to the shore.
Today, the patterns of development are less predicated on necessity and aimed more at exclusivity as coastal real estate values keep soaring. Thanks to the romance of living on the water, Long Islanders strive for the ability to watch the sunrise over the still bays or slowly set from the unique vantage point of the North Shore’s sandy bluffs.
As sumptuous as it is, is waterfront living worth the risk to the environment? Scientists, urban planners, and policymakers figured out that answer in 1978, when Suffolk County explored the linkage between land use and ground and surface water quality. The federally-funded 208 Study was an in-depth analysis of how Long Island’s regional water system will continue to degrade without substantive policy changes. The study led to groundbreaking advancements in government regulation of land use, preservation, and scientific study. Since then, policymakers, residents, and builders have struggled with this newfound knowledge that we directly impact the waterways. Add in powerful storm events occurring in the region, and Long Islanders look out at the coast with newly found mixed feelings.
Geographically isolated, Nassau and Suffolk Counties are bound by water, a fact that drives our economy while simultaneously pushing up the cost of living, driving up property values, and adding nearly incalculable benefits to the area’s quality of life. The waterfront, an area that once meant urban commerce, has evolved to zones for recreation, wealth, and exclusivity. After prolonged periods of environmental degradation thanks to wastewater and harsh storm events that create unforgiving erosion, will our collective perception of coastal living change?
Not likely – the appeal of the water is simply too alluring.