Your Turn: Memories of Lee Koppelman, Long Island planning czar

Your Turn: Memories of Lee Koppelman, Long Island planning czar

File photo/TBR News Media

By Warren Strugatch  

Twenty years ago almost to the day, I met Lee Koppelman, widely regarded as Long Island’s planning czar. Koppelman at the time was well into his four-decade run at the Long Island Regional Planning Board. I was two years into my own tenure as Long Island business columnist at The New York Times. I came to cover the planning board’s April 2002 meeting simply because Lee had gotten both Nassau and Suffolk county executives — Tom Suozzi and Robert Gaffney at the time — to share a podium.

Warren Strugatch was a business columnist for The New York Times when he first met Lee Koppelman

Koppelman told me: “If the two county executives are really going to work together, it augurs well not just for good governance but for good planning. It raises the possibility that we will be able to tear down the imaginary Berlin Wall that divides the Island at Route 110.”

The potential breakthrough never happened. I didn’t think Koppelman thought it would. The interview comment however was classic Koppelman: insightful, erudite, flinty, yet optimistic.

Long-time Setauket resident Lee Edward Koppelman died March 21, two months shy of his 95th birthday. Up until recently, he was still going to work, teaching Public Policy classes at Stony Brook University, after a lifetime of public service.

Koppelman made his name in planning by advocating open space preservation, water quality protection, coastal zone management, and other efforts to balance quality of life with sustainable economic growth, affordable housing, and other quality of life goals. He also mentored three generations of planners, who continue his legacy.

Koppelman’s resume featured long stints as Suffolk County planning director, Regional Planning Board executive director, and director of Stony Brook University’s Center for Regional Policy Studies.

In Suffolk, he bolstered low-density development patterns, strategically expanded roadways, preserved open spaces and protected water supplies. His advocacy helped Suffolk maintain its rural nature even as Nassau grew more congested. Recognizing the need for well-planned development, he helped launch the Hauppauge Industrial Park, Ronkonkoma’s industrial center, and the county court complex in Central Islip.

He also helped extend the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway eastward into the Hamptons, continuing the infrastructure expansion initiated by Robert Moses, variously a mentor, ally, and sharp-elbowed opponent. Later in life, Koppelman enjoyed referencing a letter from Moses which opened: “Dear Knucklehead.”  

Koppelman’s non-salaried regional planning board role was mostly advisory. He was however compensated for numerous studies. He also labored over and drafted four master plans for Long Island, producing enough volumes to line several bookshelves. His 1970 plan alone comprised 60 volumes. Even he laughed at the implausibility of reading them all.

Koppelman is the author or co-author of more than 20 books, including Urban Planning and Design Criteria (Van Nostran Reinhold, 1982), a widely used grad school text. Many of his grad students and protegees have gone on to influential careers themselves.

Over the years, I interviewed Koppelman many times. Lee always made time available, briefed me on the issues, and occasionally needled me with a smile. He displayed an impeccable command of facts. Decades after a discussion he could recite the evidence cited by both sides.

Lee Koppelman was born May 19, 1927, in Manhattan. Raised in Astoria by parents who owned small floral wholesale businesses, Lee joined the Navy in 1945. He returned to start a landscape architecture business; earned an undergrad degree in electrical engineering from City College (1950) and a master’s from Pratt (1964); and a Ph.D. in public administration from New York University (1970).

Lee entered urban planning during the late 1950s when, as president of the Hauppauge Civic Association, he devised a plan that sought to balance economic Lee with sustainable land use management principles. Soon thereafter, Suffolk County executive John V. Klein hired him as director of the Suffolk County Planning Department, where he stayed from 1960 through 1988.  He was named executive director of what was then the Nassau-Suffolk County Regional Planning Board in 1965, making him effectively the region’s planning czar — even if precious little regional planning took place.

Also in 1965, Koppelman joined Stony Brook University as adjunct professor in the marine sciences department. He was named director of the university’s Center for Regional Policy Studies in 1988 and taught classes until September of last year.

Last year, I called Lee seeking his signature on a petition opposing the Gyrodyne company’s development plans for Flowerfield in St. James. My old friend voiced strong opposition to the project but couldn’t sign the petition. I told him I understood. His last words to me were: “Warren, you were always on the side of the angels.”

  Lee Edward Koppelman, may you rest in peace.

 Warren Strugatch is a journalist, consultant, and civic advocate in Stony Brook.