Earth Matters: LI faces unbridled development and unseen risks

Earth Matters: LI faces unbridled development and unseen risks

The shoreline around Hempstead Harbor has changed over the last decade. Several large condominium complexes have been built or are under construction in Roslyn, Glen Cove and Glen Head, despite considerable opposition by those living in surrounding communities. And there are more developers eyeing tracts of land at the water’s edge on the Port Washington peninsula who have approached the local planning board with their proposals.

It may not be true, but it seems like developers usually win these battles. Planners call this “high density residential development,” and it seems to be particularly popular on Long Island, even though we already have the dubious distinction of being the seventh densest place on Earth.

Many of us think of overdevelopment as increased traffic and long lines at the grocery store, or even long waits for a doctor’s appointment. But there are other risks of continuing to develop an island that suffers from air and water quality issues, contributes greenhouse gases from vehicular traffic and energy use, and is already experiencing the devastating effects of climate change.

As an example, let’s look at the kinds of water contaminants associated with development. Nitrogen, mainly from human waste and fertilizers, has increased more than 200 percent since 1987. Nitrogen can decimate shellfish beds and cause algal blooms that can harm other aquatic species and even humans.

Some 117 different pesticide compounds have been found in our drinking water supply, mostly from use on lawns. Volatile organic compounds have doubled in concentration since 1987, due to industrial processes and household use. And emerging water contaminants, such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), 1, 4-dioxane, pharmaceuticals and personal care product chemicals have federal and state agencies scrambling to require manufacturers to eliminate the contaminants from their products while simultaneously requiring water departments and private water companies to remove them from their water supplies.

Developers seem to view open space as an empty canvas, waiting to be filled with something. I don’t know about you, but I cringe as I drive past the few remaining large parcels of open space along the LIE and see them being destroyed by heavy earth-moving equipment tearing out mature carbon-capturing and oxygen-producing trees by their hard-won roots and bulldozing the land. The result will be a flat surface devoid of any plant material, ready for the construction crews and the cement trucks.

After building a new corporate headquarters or a business/industrial complex or even yet another shopping center, developers will surround it with acres of blacktop parking lots. Most developers will not have put into their specs the use of solar energy or geothermal systems for heating and cooling. But they will probably carve out a few tree beds in the asphalt to plant some “greenery” just for aesthetics. It would be small consolation if they were at least native species.

“Jobs, jobs, jobs.” we’re told. How often do we hear that we have to grow the economy in order to stabilize our taxes? Is it really worth ruining our environment for a long time to come to create short-term jobs? There must be a better way to keep people employed than continuing to stress this unique and fragile island with more built environment.

Just over a half century ago, Long Island had lots of trees. Deciduous and evergreen woodlands thrived. They helped clean the air and water, protect the land from storm surges and soil erosion and provide habitat and food for birds and small animals.

Open space has always been essential for recharging or replenishing our underground sole source aquifers which provide the water we use for drinking, cooking, bathing and irrigating. It also allows native plants to thrive and provide food for endangered species that are critical to our local food chain. And the benefits for humans to walk, run, play and just be part of the natural world are untold.

Wetlands seem to be targets for developers. These unique ecosystems buffer the area between surface waters and land and serve as nurseries for fin and shell fish, safe habitats for animals, and provide a natural filtering system for pollutants. But in some places on Long Island, they are gone completely. In other places, they are being carefully replanted by volunteers with native grasses and plants in the hopes that they might flourish once again.

Perhaps you have read recently about the periodical cicadas that are about to emerge after spending 17 years gestating underground. They are known as Brood X and the last time they emerged on Long Island (and the Eastern Seaboard) was in 2004. When the soil temperature reaches about 64 degrees, they will emerge in huge numbers and molt, shedding their paper-thin exoskeleton on any nearby vertical surface. The males will then create an almost deafening noise or high pitched trill calling for a mate. After mating, the females will lay their eggs in tree bark, and then the emerging nymphs will fall and burrow into the ground and the 17-year cycle will begin again.

Entomologists fear that these fascinating insects who are an important part of the food chain won’t show up in the same numbers this year, or in some places, not at all. They have predicted that large numbers of this cicada brood will never make it to the surface as their habitats have been paved over by parking lots, roads, shopping malls or large tracts of homes and condominiums. They have been entombed under the blacktop.

If you do happen to observe this once-in-a-generation event, you and even your children can participate in citizen science and help to map and provide observations at this site

Got Cicadas? Take a Picture and Help Entomologists Map Their Arrival

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