Lee Koppelman, an urban planner who helped shaped Long Island throughout much of the 20th century, passed away on Monday. He was 94.
Across his illustrious career, Koppelman brushed shoulders with elected officials throughout Long Island and on each side of the party line. H. Lee Dennison, Suffolk County’s first elected county executive, chose Koppelman, then a landscape architect and civic leader in Hauppauge, to help build the blossoming region’s framework.
From 1960 to 1988, Koppelman worked as director of the Suffolk County Planning Department, during which time he served under two Democratic and three Republican executives.
In 2015, County Executive Steve Bellone awarded him the Suffolk Medal for Distinguished Service, the county’s highest honor.
Koppelman also served as the executive director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board from 1965 to 2006. During his 41-year tenure, he authored comprehensive plans that addressed concerns from suburban growth to insufficient sewer infrastructure in Suffolk County.
For the Town of Brookhaven, he served as chair of the Open Space Committee from 1999 to 2016.
“Lee Koppelman was a visionary planner who shaped the way Long Island and Suffolk County look today,” Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine said. “Through his hard work and foresight, the rate of development that predicted a population of 750,000 for Brookhaven in the year 2000 was controlled so that today our town is still home to less than 500,00 people.”
Romaine noted how Koppelman’s efforts were instrumental toward Brookhaven maintaining its rural, suburban character and preserving the town’s quality of life.
“We owe a debt of gratitude to him, and he will be sorely missed,” Romaine said.
Environmental protection and sustainability
Koppelman’s life of service extends beyond the field of public policy. He taught political science courses for more than three decades at Stony Brook University, earning the title Professor Emeritus and serving as the director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies.
Many of his former students turned colleagues and friends have taken his knowledge into their careers in public policy or development, including former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy and former Chief Deputy County Executive Kevin S. Law, who is now a partner and executive vice president at TRITEC Real Estate Company.
Koppelman’s drive to protect open spaces island-wide is one of the urban planner’s most wide-reaching legacies as a sustainability visionary.
“Long Island has lost a giant,” Law said. “People can drive all around Long Island, primarily Suffolk County, and identify parcels that look like they did hundreds of years ago and will look like that hundreds of years from now because [Koppelman] recommended that they be preserved.”
Among the preserved lands is the Dr. Lee Koppelman Nature Preserve, a 46-acre Setauket parcel that the Town of Brookhaven dedicated to the legendary planner in 2018.
The preserved parcels not only protect natural beauty; they safeguard drinking water for future generations.
“On Long Island we get our drinking water from the ground,” said Richard Murdocco, a former student and colleague of Koppelman at Stony Brook University, where he is an adjunct professor of political science. “Because of him, we had the legislative and policy framework to secure Long Island’s future that we’re able to still live in this region and sustain ourselves on drinking water.
“He was one of the first to study that relationship between development and water quality, and as a result, we protected large swaths of open space,” Murdocco added.
Both Law and Murdocco said Koppelman’s bipartisan approach to public service was perhaps the most important lesson he taught them.
“He always advised to stay away from the politics and just do good government,” Law said. “He also taught me how impactful county government could be.”
Murdocco said he teaches his students Koppelman’s adage that “planning rises above the fray.”
“When we create policies that shape our neighborhoods and communities, you always need to involve the people that are there,” he said. “Plans are not handed down from an ivory tower, they’re created from the ground up. It’s about balance, non-partisanship, universal traits that as a society we’re moving away from as our civil discourse becomes more course and abrasive.”
Life and education
Lee Edward Koppelman was born May 19, 1927, in Harlem. In 1950, he earned a degree in electrical engineering from the City College of New York and set out to become a landscape architect. He eventually earned earned a master’s degree in planning from the Pratt Institute and a doctorate in public administration from New York University.
After marriage and a move to Suffolk County, he became active in a Hauppauge civic group. Soon after, Dennison recruited him, jumpstarting a decades-long career of public service.
He is survived by Connie, his wife of nearly 75 years, as well as his children Lesli, Claudia, Laurel and Keith, and his grandchildren Ezra, Ora and Dara.
Top: Lee Koppelman (sitting) being honored by the Town of Brookhaven, courtesy of Town of Brookhaven.