Lee E. Koppelman, Trailblazing Long Island Planner, Dies at 94

Lee E. Koppelman, a planning visionary who during four decades fought to impose a regional agenda for economic development and environmental conservation across Long Island, died on Monday in Stony Brook, N.Y. He was 94.

His death, at Stony Brook University Hospital, was confirmed by his daughter Lesli Ross.

As the executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk Regional Planning Board from 1965 to 2006, Mr. Koppelman was instrumental in preserving tens of thousands of acres of farmland and open space in Suffolk County, protecting coastal wetlands and the underground water supply, creating Suffolk County’s park system and preserving the vast Pine Barrens forest.

“All those things were well ahead of contemporary thinking at the time; now they are taken for granted,” John V.N. Klein, a former Suffolk County executive, told The New York Times in 1999.

As an appointee beholden to elected county executives, Mr. Koppelman wielded little direct power. But as a nonpartisan, if prickly, expert planner, he won the respect of politicians, preservationists and developers.

Over the course of his long career, he persuaded legislators to adopt an initial 2 percent sales tax, which began grossing about $100 million annually in 1970; warned that road runoff was a primary pollutant of aquifers and estuaries; and successfully lobbied to extend the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway east toward the Hamptons.

When Mr. Koppelman resigned as executive director in 2006, Mitchell H. Pally, vice president of the Long Island Association, a business and civic group, said, “There’s been no one more significant to Long Island in the last 40 years.”

The author Robert A. Caro recalled encountering Mr. Koppelman first when he was a reporter for the Long Island newspaper Newsday and then when he was researching his magisterial biography of Robert Moses, “The Power Broker” (1974).

Moses was a master builder who left a legacy of parks, expressways, public beaches and bridges. Mr. Koppelman was also a man of big ideas, but more of a master planner.

“I met very few planners with such a brilliant and farseeing ‘vision of grand scale and scope,’” Mr. Caro wrote in an email. “Among his many achievements, he was the leading force in the establishment by Suffolk County of a program to preserve farmland — and Long Island’s vanishing open spaces — by having the county purchase development rights.”

While Mr. Koppelman survived partisan political upheavals on Long Island, he was sometimes more successful at generating robust debate over his plans than at implementing them.

His suggestions for a commuter rail line along the Long Island Expressway, an investment in 100,000 affordable homes and apartments, and a bridge or expanded ferry service across Long Island Sound never got far beyond the drawing board.

Mr. Koppelman in his office in Stony Brook, N.Y., in 2004. “There’s been no one more significant to Long Island in the last 40 years,” a colleague said in 2006.Credit…Ed Betz for The New York Times

He drafted four master plans for Long Island, including one in 1970 that filled 60 volumes.

“There are two types of planners,” Frank DeRubeis, Smithtown’s planning chief, was quoted as saying in Long Island History Journal in 2009. One type, he said, “does the plan and then leaves it up to the elected officials to either implement the plan or not”; the other “is a planner who completes the study and then uses everything in their power to get the plan implemented.” Mr. Koppelman, he said, “was the latter of the two.”

Lee Edward Koppelman was born on May 19, 1927, in Manhattan and grew up in Astoria, Queens. His parents, Max and Madelyn (Eisenberg) Koppelman, owned a greenhouse in Queens and a flower shop on Madison Avenue.

After graduating from Bryant High School in Astoria, Mr. Koppelman joined the Navy in 1945, then earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from City College in 1950 and a master’s from Pratt Institute in 1964. He received a doctorate in public administration from New York University in 1970.

In addition to his daughter Lesli, he is survived by his wife, Connie; three other children, Claudia and Keith Koppelman and Laurel Heard; and three grandchildren.

In 1952 Mr. Koppelman, who owned a landscape architecture business, moved to Hauppauge, on Long Island, where he became active in civic affairs. In 1960, the Suffolk County executive, H. Lee Dennison, named him the county’s first planning director. He held that post until 1988.

Along with serving as executive director of the Regional Planning Board, he became the director of the State University of New York at Stony Brook’s Center for Regional Policy Studies in 1988.

He was the author, with Joseph De Chiara, of “Site Planning Standards” (1978) and “Urban Planning and Design Criteria” (1982).

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