Nor has Koppleman played on the same team with at least one of his own fellow board members— Roger Tilles, now head of the Tilles Investment Company. Appointed to the Planning Board by the county last year, Tilles said he hasn't voted on policies concerning his Underhill property, though he has taken part in discussions of it. "If there's no money to buy it, nobody has ever said that they should appropriate it or stop it from being developed or whatever," Tilles says.

Fight The Power

For the activists who are trying to block destruction of open space in Oyster Bay, the presence of a developer like Tilles on the Long Island Regional Planning Board is just one more example of the kinds of tight political connections that have made their fight so difficult.

Bonnie Eisler, who lives in Woodbury, says anxious neighbors have struggled to get information about the town budget and proposals for paving Plainview. Eisler says she watches powerful GOP lawyers lobby the Town Board for developers and get the full attention of officials. After years of feeling small as an ant when she rises to speak, Eisler decided the only way to make a difference in Oyster Bay was to snatch some power for the people. She's thrown her hat into the November race for Town Board, running on the Democratic and Working Families party lines.

"We only get really one chance at the environment," Eisler says. "Until we bust Tammany Hall in Oyster Bay, things aren't going to change."

As important as the Underhill and Plainview acres are, they pale in comparison to the August land grab at the State College at Old Westbury, where some 200 forested acres are now in developers' sights. Those woods also sit on top of the same aquifer as the Underhill and Plainview tracts— and they were placed in jeopardy courtesy of legislation sponsored by State Sen. Carl Marcellino, a Syosset Republican, and Assemblyman Tom DiNapoli, a Great Neck Democrat who's also the new Nassau County Democratic boss.

Tilles points out that Marcellino and DiNapoli lead environmental committees in Albany but are leading a charge for development here on the Island. He questions why politicians have been willing to pave over vast parcels in groundwater protection areas but are digging their heels in when it comes to his 81 acres. "This is not an environmental issue," he says. "It doesn't make sense to try to preserve a small piece at the same time as you're throwing away large ones."

Others wonder why Tilles doesn't see that the Underhill property is still beautiful, especially compared with the Plainview sandpits. Its aesthetic value makes it an environmental flashpoint no matter who wants to develop it.

Nassau is so bereft of unbuilt acres that it renders parkways as green areas on planning maps and includes lawns and golf courses in surveys of open space. Now that so little open land is left, every square inch of it becomes more valuable.

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, can rattle off a list of programs for buying open space in Suffolk County. Thanks to the combined efforts of state and local government, some 53,000 acres of the Pine Barrens are now set aside forever. Plans are under way to add yet more land.

Amper says that without cooperation from state and county government, Oyster Bay will never be able to afford to protect its unbuilt property— even if town officials decided to stop trying to sell it. As time ticks by, the value of the parcels balloons, making preservation more difficult by the minute. "It's the last open space to recharge the aquifer," he says, "and the developers and their friends have put a big bull's-eye on it."

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