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Long Island at the Crossroads 40 Years Later

In 1978, Newsday examined the quality of life on Long Island in its series “Long Island at the Crossroads.” The six-month effort culminated in 10 recommendations that experts deemed critical for a better future on Long Island. Forty years later, we look at how far the Island has come in those areas.

Read about the 10 recommendations and explore the illustration from the original 1978 series.

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Rendering of a potential tunnel under the LI sound. Credit: Polimeni International LLC

1) 1978 idea: Remove transportation “dead-end.”

Build bridge to Connecticut and develop a nearby deepwater seaport.

Status now:After a flurry of activity that suggested a connection was possible, the Cuomo administration in late June abandoned its proposal to build either a new bridge or tunnel to cross Long Island Sound, an idea that again had run into local opposition.

A Long Island-based developer, Polimeni International LLC, had proposed a “Cross Sound Link” tunnel that stalled in the state approval stages about eight years ago. In 2016, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo resurrected the idea and ordered the state to study the feasibility of a bridge or tunnel across the Sound. The study, released by the state in October, said the project could cost up to $55.4 billion and that a crossing would be feasible only from Oyster Bay Town or Kings Park.

Without going into detail, Paul Karas, the acting commissioner of the state Transportation Department, said the project will not be moving forward “at this time.” Cuomo and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council have also both pushed in recent years to study building a deepwater port in Shoreham, at the site of the old power plant.

— Alfonso A. Castillo

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The farm stand at Green Thumb Organic Farm in Water Mill. Credit: Randee Daddona

2) 1978 idea: A regional market.

Create a centrally located food distribution center on Long Island that would enable residents to buy Island-produced goods and perishables from elsewhere, reducing food costs.

Status now: In 1978, the primary distribution center serving the New York City area was Hunts Point in the Bronx, home to the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market and Hunts Point Cooperative Meat Market. And in some ways, little has changed — Hunts Point still dominates, especially now that it is also home to The New Fulton Fish Market.

What has changed is the food landscape, helping make the Bronx a better center for food than Long Island itself, experts say.

Far less produce is grown on the Island than 40 years ago, and it’s not nearly enough to support Long Island’s population alone.

Much of what is produced on the Island is sold directly to consumers or processed locally, said Rob Carpenter, spokesman for the Long Island Farm Bureau. In addition, officials decided it didn’t make much sense to build a market to try to compete with Hunts Point, and smaller distributors sprang up to fill the gaps where Long Island needed it, Carpenter said.

There are more than 190 food storage and distribution facilities in Nassau and Suffolk counties that handle a variety of fresh and processed foods, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.

— Laura Blasey

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An aerial view of houses along Centennial Avenue in Baldwin. Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

3) 1978 idea:Pass legislation to limit property taxes.

Status now: Long Island homeowners, who pay among the highest property taxes in the country, finally breathed a sigh of relief in 2012 with the implementation of the state’s tax cap. The law, championed by Cuomo, limits property tax growth for counties, cities, villages, towns, fire and school districts to 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. Municipalities and school districts can exceed the cap by winning a “supermajority” of at least 60 percent in budget votes. But the cap was negated somewhat with the passage of the Republican tax bill, which eliminates the full deduction for state and local taxes. The new federal tax law caps state and local tax deductions at $10,000. In 2016, average property tax bills were $11,232 in Nassau and $9,333 in Suffolk, according to an analysis by Attom Data Solutions, a California company that tracks real estate data.

— Robert Brodsky

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Students in a kindergarten classroom at Prospect School in Hempstead. Credit: Howard Schnapp

4) 1978 idea:A Long Island history course.

Establish a course on Long Island history in public schools as part of an effort to develop increased Long Island identity.

Status now: Most schools don’t offer a Long Island history course, though they do teach local history, according to the heads of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents and Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.

In Hampton Bays, for example, fourth-graders learn about key moments in Long Island’s history such as its role in the Revolutionary War and the development of the country’s first suburbs, according to Superintendent Lars Clemensen.

The state’s guide for curriculum development in social studies includes several places for instruction about local history and where teaching about Long Island history would be appropriate, according to an Education Department official.

For example, fourth-grade social studies is focused on New York State and local communities and their change over time. In grades 7 and 8, teachers are encouraged to incorporate local features of state history, the official said.

— Rachel Uda

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Edward P. Romaine and Anthony J. Santino during a 2017 Long Island Regional Planning Council meeting in Melville. Credit: Heather Walsh

5) 1978 idea:A Long Island Action Committee.

Create a leadership group representing the power structure that would meet weekly to mobilize the Island toward positive courses for the future.

Status now: The Long Island landscape is dotted with bicounty committees, comprising elected officials, business, education and union leaders, designed to advance the region’s quality of life. For four decades, the most influential group was the Long Island Regional Planning Board, which studied economic, fiscal and demographic trends. The board folded in 2006 but was rebranded the Long Island Regional Planning Council the following year. The council, which has struggled financially, has become more political in recent years, allowing leaders in government, including town supervisors and village mayors, to serve on the body.

—Robert Brodsky

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A Suffolk County Planning Commission drawing of a proposed golf facility in Holtsville.

6) 1978 idea: Establish a Nassau-Suffolk Regional Planning Commission

Rather than rely on the Tri-State Regional Planning Commission, this commission would dole out federal funds designated for Long Island.

Status now: Plans to establish a single Long Island-based planning commission to act as a clearinghouse for all federal funds never materialized. The Tri-State Regional Planning Commission, which served as a conduit for federal aid to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, folded in 1981 and was never replaced. Nassau and Suffolk established their own respective planning commissions but the boards are largely focused on local zoning and land-use recommendations. The federal government now distributes billions annually to Long Islanders in the form of grants, loans and contracts to local governments, nonprofit organizations, businesses and universities.

—Robert Brodsky

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Sen. John Flanagan speaks at a 2018 LIA breakfast in Woodbury. Credit: Howard Schnapp

7) 1978 idea: Create a Job Development Authority

The quasi-governmental bicounty organization with zoning and regional powers would create jobs and promote tourism.

Status now: Long Island officials never moved to create a quasi-governmental regional organization that was focused on job creation. Instead, Nassau, Suffolk and six Long Island towns and villages have relied on their respective industrial development agencies, which provide financial assistance and tax incentives to entice businesses to relocate or expand their footprint. The Long Island Association, a nonprofit that serves as the region’s largest business group, advocates for policies that create and retain jobs while the Long Island Convention and Visitors Bureau & Sports Commission serves as the region’s official tourism promotion agency.

—Robert Brodsky

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Laura Mallay, executive director of Residents for Efficient Special Districts, in front of the Town of Hempstead’s Sanitation District #2 offices in Baldwin in 2011. Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

8) 1978 idea: Simplify government.

To eliminate unnecessary layers of government, particularly special districts.

Status now: Long Island elected officials, with rare exceptions, have not eliminated or consolidated special taxing districts that provide services such as water, fire protection, police, parks and sanitation. Long Island has more than 300 such districts, in addition to other levels of village, town and county governments.

Among the exceptions, Brookhaven consolidates services such as trash pickup and information technology with villages such as Mastic Beach, Bellport and Port Jefferson. Head of the Harbor shares a part-time building inspector with Nissequogue and Village of the Branch, both in the Town of Smithtown.

Cuomo last year offered financial incentives to local municipalities that come up with plans for consolidating county, town and village services to cut property taxes. “Not everyone has to do everything,” Cuomo told a crowd in Suffolk last year. “Not every government is a country unto itself. You can find efficiencies among yourselves.”

—Robert Brodsky

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Rendering of the Ronkonkoma Hub proposal. Credit: Ronkonkoma Vision Project LLC

9) 1978 idea:Affordable housing.

Legalize some multifamily use of single-family dwellings and increase rental housing options and improve financing opportunities to help make housing more affordable.

Status now: Attitudes on affordable housing have begun to change — albeit slowly — throughout the region. A 2016 study by the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University estimated that Long Island has 14,500 to 16,000 legal accessory apartments, making up about 7 percent of the Island’s total rental stock. Local officials estimate there are 90,000 to 100,000 illegal apartments on the Island. While some rental housing has been built, particularly near Long Island Rail Road stations, the number represents a fraction of all occupied housing, according to a study from the Regional Plan Association, an urban research and advocacy organization. A 2014 report by state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli found that Nassau and Suffolk had among the state’s highest rates of homeownership, at 80.4 and 78.9 percent, respectively. But elected officials continue to push for more housing near Long Island Rail Road stations to attract young people, including a planned 1,450 apartments at the Ronkonkoma Hub.

—Robert Brodsky

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Commuters about to board a bus at the Rosa Parks Transportation Center in Hempstead in 2015. Credit: J. Conrad Williams Jr.

10) 1978 idea: Create a regional transportation authority.

To coordinate the bus systems in both counties, MacArthur and Republic Airports and the bicounty state highway system.

Status Now: Hopes of consolidating all the region’s bus systems under one roof were dealt a major setback in 2011, when Nassau County opted to withdraw the former Long Island Bus from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and hire a private operator to run its transit system, re-branded the Nassau Inter-County Express, or NICE. Although MTA officials have said they still favor a regional approach to transportation issues, there are no firm plans to bring the disparate transportation agencies together. The Regional Plan Association, in its latest plan released last year, also called for an “integrated regional rail system” that could one day be expanded “into a seamless regional transit system.”

— Alfonso A. Castillo

Drag and explore the map using 2 fingers.

Newsday artwork by Bernard Cootner (1978) / Colorist: Neville Harvey (2018) Production: Seth Mates and Erin McCarthy / Design: Anthony Carrozzo / Development: Will Welch